Here are my musings on how we can work less to become more creative, productive, and have more time to rest and play. With extracts from ‘Rest’.
Only in recent history has ‘working hard’ signalled pride rather than shame.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb
MEET YOUR DEFAULT MODE NETWORK (OR DMN)
“These studies convinced … neuroscientists that the resting brain isn’t inactive. The brain
automatically switches on a default mode network (DMN), a series of interconnected sections
that activate as soon as people stop concentrating on external tasks, and shifts from outward-focused
to inward-focused cognition. As they’ve explored it further, scientists have realised that
the DMN and resting-state are doing critical work on our behalf. …
In other words, a set of activities that we’re not conscious of (pretty much by definition), and
which we didn’t even know existed until the 1990s, turns out to be implicated in just about
every significant cognitive and emotional activity. Intelligence? Check. Moral and emotional
judgment? Check. Empathy? Check. Sanity? Check.
That’s a lot of benefit for something we call ‘rest.’ And if your ‘resting’ brain is much more active
then you realise, giving your brain the right kinds of ‘rest’ is critical to its development, health,
Ever wonder what’s going on with your brain when it’s not “on”/working/focused on something?
Well, meet your default mode network. DMN for short.
And, know this: Your brain is doing a LOT when you are doing nothing. As in, way more than
you can imagine. Which is why deliberately training our rest and developing the ability to flip the
switch into a deeply restorative DMN state is so essential for our flourishing.
I’ve covered this before when talking about embracing boredom, and leading yourself first.
In that context, we talked about the importance of reducing the “inputs” we allow into our lives
during our days—creating large quantums of time for solitude in which we engage in deep,
meaningful work and by making sure we reduce inputs during all those “non-working” chunks
of time that so easily get swallowed up by the tsunami of smartphone stimuli.
Why is that important? Well, a lot of reasons but right at the top of the list is to make sure we’re
giving our DMN plenty of room to roam.
Alex Pang tells us: “Just as great athletes seem able to draw on reserves of energy that the rest
of us cannot or are more effective at getting oxygen to tired brains and muscles, so too do the
DMN’s of creative people have stronger connections between areas associated with functional
abilities like verbal acuity, visual skill, and memory, connections that allow their brains to keep
working on problems when in the resting state.”
A big reason why creative exemplars have such great brains is that they prioritised REST.
They weren’t grinding away all day every day. (And then blowing their brains up with nonstop
digital inputs the rest of the day!) In fact, they’d only work four hours/day. Which leads us to…
THE FOUR-HOUR WORKDAY
“When you examine the lives of history’s most creative figures, you are immediately confronted
with a paradox: they organize their lives around their work, but not their days.
Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in
disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to
succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily
lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important
work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with
friends, or just sitting and thinking. Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not
the results of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest
‘working’ hours. …
If some of history’s greatest figures didn’t put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to
unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they laboured but how
they rested, and how the two relate.”
Four hours? Yep. That’s about how much some of history’s greatest creators put into their most
So… Want to stimulate your creativity? Work less.
Well, more accurately, work wisely.
When I looked at endurance guru Phil Maffetone’s brilliant work, he talks about how to
tap into your potential as an athlete. He has a very simple training equation (that he tells us all to
put up somewhere such that we see it all day every day): Training = Workout + Rest.
Some people “undertrain.” They need to get off the couch and get out there. But, he says, most
people with some athletic ambition, overtrain. They work too hard. And, they don’t rest enough.
So… Want to tap into your creative potential? Well, then… Our equation may go something like
this: Creativity = Work + Rest. We need to Work hard AND Rest equally “hard.”
Again, most of us aren’t creative couch potatoes so the issue isn’t “underworking.” It’s
overworking. Therefore, to optimise we need to deliberately constrain our work time, really go
deep during that limited, focused time and then train our recovery just as well.
As Jim Loehr says in all his books, we want to create really big “amplitudes”: SUPER ON and
then SUPER OFF. Making waves throughout our days. Nice, beautiful, oscillating rhythms.
Which happens to be the subject of our next idea.
Something that also comes through Anders Ericsson’s research when dissecting his work in Peak.
He tells us: “But there was something else that Ericsson and his colleagues noted in their
study, something that almost everyone has subsequently overlooked. ‘Deliberate practise,’
they observed, ‘is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.’
Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you
increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out.
To succeed, students must ‘avoid exhaustion’ and ‘limit practise to an amount from which they
can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.’
How do students marked for greatness make the most of limited practice time? The rhythm
of their practise follows a distinctive pattern. They put in more hours per week in the practice
room or playing field, but they don’t do it by making each practise longer. Instead, they have
more frequent, shorter sessions, each lasting about eighty to ninety minutes, with a half-hour
break in between.
Add these several practises up, and what do you get? About four hours a day. About the same
amount of time Darwin spent every day doing his hardest work. Jefferson spent reading
the law, Hardy and Littlewood spent doing math, Dickens and Koestler spent writing. Even
ambitious students in one of the world’s best schools, preparing for a notoriously competitive
field, could handle only four hours of really focused, serious effort per day.”
Four hours of deep, focused (!) work on the most important stuff.
EARLY STARTS AND RHYTHMS
“An early start also opens space in your day for rest and allows you to establish a clear
division between working and resting time. One should ‘either work all out or rest completely,’
Cambridge mathematician John Littlewood advised. Even for people whose minds naturally
gravitate to their work, having clear boundaries between periods of work and rest allows them
to get more from each. ‘It is too easy, when rather tired, to fritter a whole day away with the
intention of working but never getting properly down to it,’ Littlewood said. ‘This is pure waste,
nothing is done, and you have had no rest or relaxation.’ Virtually every prolific author and
scientist would agree. A day that starts with work creates rest that can be enjoyed without guilt.
When you start early, the rest you take is the rest you’ve earned.”
That’s from a chapter called “Morning Routine” that kicks off with a story about how Scott
Adams starts his day. Every day.
He also profiles Stephen King and talks about his “basement guy” muse we chat about in our
Notes on On Writing. Get this: “Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, works about four hours a
day on the strip and other writing; as he points out, ‘My value is based on my best ideas in any
given day, not the number of hours I work.’ Stephen King describes four to six hours of reading
and writing as a ‘strenuous’ day.”
So… The Big Idea from this chapter on morning routines? The creative geniuses above
tend to start their days early. They’ve created routines that match their best energy to their most
important work and don’t allow unnecessary inputs to distract them.
They created rhythms in their lives in which they either “work all out” or “rest completely.”
How about you? How do you start YOUR days? Have you matched your best energy to your most
important work? Baked in plenty of nice oscillations of intense ON and equally intense OFF?
In other words: How are your optimal days?
And, most importantly, how can you optimise a little more today?
WALKING + EXERCISE
“For many thinkers and doers, a walk is an essential part of their daily routine, a source of
exercise and solitude. Thomas Jefferson advised his nephew to walk for mental relaxation and
for physical endurance and added, ‘Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking
is to relax the mind [and] divert your attention by the objects surrounding you.’ Jefferson
practised what he preached, walking in the mornings before breakfast ‘to shake off sleep,’ taking
five-mile tramps around Paris during his posting as ambassador, and, as president, reserving
time during the afternoon for walking or riding.”
Here lies a phenomenal sales pitch for the power of walking, sharing the walking habits of a
bunch of great modern and historical figures—from Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg to Charles
Dickens (who took 10 to 12 mile (!) walks; 18 miles (!!!) if he was troubled!) and Charles Darwin
(who leased land from a neighbour so he could walk his “Thinking Path” every day).
Plus, fun facts: “Ernő Rubik made the critical design breakthrough that yielded the Rubik’s
Cube while walking along the River Danube.”
And: “The uncertainty principle came to Werner Heisenberg during a late-night walk-in
Copenhagen in 1927. Heisenberg had been struggling with the fact that the equations he
had developed could precisely predict the momentum of a particle but not its position. While
walking in Fælled Park, he had an insight: what if there was no problem with the mathematics
or the models? What if this uncertainty was actually a property of particles?”
Of course, to be clear: Genius ideas didn’t just randomly show up in these genius minds. They
WORKED incredibly hard and had prepared their minds for the insight. And… They also
RESTED their minds and flipped the switch on their default mode networks and voila!
Creativity = Work + Rest.
Alex touched on the same theme in The Distraction Addiction in which he introduced us to the
Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando: “It is solved by walking.”
And, I love Thomas Jefferson’s wisdom. If he was alive today I am quite confident he’d still be an
advocate of walking AND an even bigger advocate of making sure our walks were an opportunity
to relax our minds.
So… Think of Jefferson the next time you head out on a walk. Relax your mind.
Never think of taking your smartphone (with all your audiobooks and podcasts and music and
email and phone and…) with you! RELAX. YOUR. MIND. Genius DMN thoughts won’t bubble
up if you’re constantly drowning in inputs, my friend.
exercise is REALLY powerful.
Especially AEROBIC endurance exercise. “Running seems to be particularly effective in
stimulating neurogenesis.” Why? Well: “Aerobic activity is beneficial in several ways. Exercise
strengthens your cardiovascular system and improves your circulation, which means your
body can deliver more blood to your brain when it’s working. … A firing neuron uses as much
energy as a leg muscle cell during a marathon. Further, sustained aerobic exercise stimulates
the body to generate more small blood vessels in the brain, and a better-developed cerebral
vasculature can deliver blood to the brain faster and more effectively. A 2012 study found that
episodic memory improves as maximal oxygen capacity increases. (Conversely, comparative
studies of adults who do and don’t exercise find that couch potatoes have lower scores on tests
of executive function and processing speed and in middle age have faster rates of brain ageing
and memory decline.)”
THAT’S SUPER COMPELLING!
Note: Although high-intensity workouts and strength training have benefits, we’re not talking
about hard-core ANAEROBIC exercise here. We’re talking about AEROBIC training.
This is one of the reasons I’m so focused on upping my athletic game and spent a week reading
five of Phil Maffetone’s books on endurance training. Check those out for more on how to get
your aerobic training on optimally!
Another pointer: all the world-class creative thinkers who were ALSO elite athletes. From
Nobel Prize winners who run 2:49 Boston Marathons to other Nobel Prize winners who are elite
mountain climbers. Super inspiring. Which actually perfectly leads us to the next idea.
PLAY: IT’S ALL ONE BIG GAME!
“For creative and prolific people, seeing outside activities as expressions of the same interests
that guide their professional lives builds a bridge between the worlds of work and rest and
helps turn these activities into deep play. For Michelson and other creative figures, deep play
didn’t compete with work; it was a way to express the same fascination with nature, need to
challenge ones’ self, and passion for focus and concentration and problem-solving. Seeing them
as connected helps turn what could be seen as a time-wasting distraction into an important,
valuable part of their lives. It helps justify pursuing these activities even if they’re timeconsuming.”
That’s from a chapter called “Deep Play” in which we learn that “Deep play is a critical form of
deliberate rest and an essential part of the lives of creative people.”
As we discuss often when talking about play, the best way to set up our lives is to make it
ALL one big game. That’s what some of the greatest creative geniuses have done. Their work IS
play. AND… Very importantly: They deliberately invest a significant amount of time and energy
into non-work endeavours that give them an opportunity to simultaneously totally check out of
their primary work while challenging themselves at the same high levels.
Done right, our Deep Play isn’t a distraction. It’s an integral part of our creativity equation. (In
fact, look up the research on super-elite scientists vs. average scientists. The
average ones overworked and didn’t prioritize rest and play as much as the elite scientists.)
This section gave me even more clarity and confidence to invest more of my energy into my
own physical training.
One more musing from Alex. He tells us that deep play “provides a way to unify what might
otherwise be disparate and scattered activities into a unified whole, a life that is greater than
the sum of its parts.”
All of which brings us back to you: How’s YOUR play and how can you go even deeper?
Let’s remember our new creativity equation: Creativity = Work + Rest!
Feeling enlightened? Download my ebook for free, for a limited time only at: 80 Ways To Find Your Purpose