Improve Your Productivity By Making Time for Rest

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that, because of my illness, I have limited time in the day to do things and have to be careful not to overdo it. Recently I’ve been reading a book that suggests that I might be reaping a few benefits from my disability instead of just being crippled by it.
Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, suggests that we do our best work if we work intensely for 4-6 hrs a day—a length of time that can be used all at once or split into a number of individual sessions. In the time that we’re not working intensely, we should be actively resting, which includes things like naps, walking/running/hiking, answering letters (in our case, answering emails…), playing with the dog, doing crafts, etc.
I’ve mentioned before that I find that I’m writing even when I’m not writing, which is what Pang is getting at: if you engage yourself intensely in something and then take a break, your mind can work on it in the background while you’re noodling on the piano or drawing the cool bird that just showed up at your feeder. You’ll get insights you might not have otherwise if you used the standard approach of putting your nose to the grindstone and working as hard as you can for as long as you can.
Pang lists many people across disciplines: scientists, musicians, writers, doctors, etc. who all worked for maximum 6 hours a day, though 4 hours was more common. And many of the people he mentions were phenomenally productive. All because they incorporated active rest into their daily routine.

“They organize their lives around their work. But not their days,” he writes.

(This of course echoes two Annie Dillard quotes that I’ve used in many of my posts: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and “Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”)
I’ve heard this on some of the editors’ forums I’m part of. Many freelance editors say they can’t edit for more than 4 hours a day without starting to introduce errors or miss things in the text. In-house editors, who are at work for 7 hours a day, say that if they broke down just the time they spend editing (not in meetings or going for coffee breaks or gossiping in the copy room), it would probably work out to about 4-5 hours as well.
Pang’s book reminds me of the move towards Slow Scholarship: the idea that academics need to spend less time in meetings and finding grant money and more time doing things outside of their work in order to think more deeply about it. There’s a strong school of thought that feels academic research is lacking in big, new ideas simply because no one has the time to think more deeply about their research.
As Dr. Allison Mountz and colleagues write in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies,

“good scholarship requires time: to think, write, read, research, analyze, edit, organize, and resist the growing administrative and professional demands that disrupt these crucial processes of intellectual growth and personal freedom.”

There’s also a book called The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, by Dr. Maggie Berg and Dr. Barbara Seeber. In an interview with University Affairs magazine, Dr. Berg notes that

“Over the last two decades, we’ve seen increases in class sizes, the casualization of academic labour, administrative bloating, the shift toward quantification of our time and our output. Pressures to publish, new technology, the downloading of tasks and the confusion it creates – these all have led to a situation where we spend less time talking face-to-face with each other and more time multitasking. There seems to be less sense of community and collegiality.”

As Dr. Seeber says,

“Being a “slow professor” is about making considered choices about what we do, not simply doing less.”

This idea of making “considered choices” ties into a guest post by Simon Raybould on editor Louise Harmby’s blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour. He talks about defining the individual tasks you do regularly for your job, then determining how long you can do each task at an optimum level before you become “tired and unproductive” (i.e., before you need some active rest). You can then arrange your daily schedule to take advantage of your prime productivity times for each task. Say you can proofread for 30 mins at prime productivity but blog for 2 hrs at prime productivity. You might decide to proofread for 30 mins, then switch to blogging. Then switch back to proofreading or to another task that needs to be done. This way you’re always working at the top of the game for each particular task, and you can use task switching as a form of active rest. (Though I suspect there’s some likelihood of turning this approach into serious multi-tasking that actually reduces productivity over time.)
For me, Pang’s book and the literature on slow scholarship validate the way I’ve had to structure my life. No, I’m not working 4 hours a day, but even if I write for 2 hours that still gives me something to work with, and—as I’ve mentioned in other posts—I can write even when I’m *not* writing. Pang also focuses on the importance of routine in maintaining the balance between work and rest. This is doubly gratifying to me, as I have a fairly consistent routine that I follow to maintain my mental health, and sometimes I feel like a weirdo because of that routine. Turns out I’m in good company, with people like Stephen King and Virginia Woolf. Routine makes it easier to slide into your work without having to think about what you’re going to do or how you’re going to do it. You just do it.
For those of you out there who think you’re a lightweight if you’re not working 60-80 hours a week, check out Pang’s book. You’d be surprised at the list of luminaries in various fields who were super productive on just 20-30 hrs of work a week.

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