Practice and Rest

There inevitably comes a point in my day every afternoon (and I suspect I’m not alone) when I just want to step away from my work and take a break. I’ve worked a few hours in the morning, and after having lunch, I just want to get some rest by way of a short nap or by doing nothing (but not consuming any content). After resting for a while, I’ll end up working a few more hours before I close out my day early in the evening. So, on any given day, I end up working no more than 4-6 hours, and that’s about how much I can work and want to work.

For me, after that, it’s all downtime — the time I spend relaxing, renewing, pursuing things of interest, etc. (things that have little to do with my work), but are engaging nonetheless. Weekends are mostly downtime/renewal except for doing some work in the mornings and planning my week on Sunday evenings. This way, I end up working no more than 20-30 hours in a given week.

Now, one may look at my weekly schedule and workload and think that those are not a lot of hours worked (and they would be right). They may even associate my schedule to some form of laziness, but this is where they would be wrong. You see, the point they would be missing is that it’s not about the time spent (long hours) at work, but the results you get from the few hours you work. That is what makes the difference. Most of us spend long hours at work regardless of what we accomplish there, but spending long hours at work doesn’t equate to getting results. In the end, if you’re not getting results at work, then what are you doing?

I bring this up because I could never see myself spending long hours working in the corporate world (bless those who are working like that).

There is growing research that validates the assertion that those who spend long hours at work are no more productive than those who work a fifth of those hours. More specifically, the research suggests that four hours of intensive work is about all you can do in a given day. This also assumes that you’re actually working during those hours, not idling away.

Ideally, you want to spend the rest of your day not working, or in downtime. You want to get away from work and pursue other things while you come back with a renewed sense of focus and energy. This research is also consistent with my daily practice of working 4-6 hours.

I also wrote about Work and Play in a previous essay and explained that we want to spend time working most of the week because we want to feel useful and to contribute. In that, I explained how we need to do both, and we need to keep them separate in order to do them effectively — that is the only sustainable way to do it. Both are required. Work without Play doesn’t work, and Play without Work is meaningless.

Of course, it might be difficult for those who work in the corporate world to comprehend this approach, as they tend to value compliance more than commitment and results, among other things (but that’s a different conversation). Though, I can attest from experience that it’s totally doable for business owners to work 4-6 hours a day and spend the rest of the day away from work. They have much more control over their time than those who work full time in organizations.

Building on my Work and Play piece, working these few hours requires deliberate practice followed by periods of rest. I touched on the science of it in my essay on 90 minutes.

Author Alex Pang defines Deliberate Practice as:

Deliberate practice is focused, structured, and offers clear goals and feedback; it requires paying attention to what you’re doing and observing how you can improve.

The best knowledge workers are not the ones who spend the most time at work, but the ones who know when to stop.

So, how much deliberate practice is needed? Think of exercise as an analogy for this. If you push too little, you won’t get much out of your workout. If you push too much, you might end up hurting yourself. You want to push yourself just enough so that you are challenged outside of your comfort zone.

This reason (from Alex’s book) to keep showing up every day resonated with me the most because it’s so true for me and because I couldn’t have said it better:

Second, you need a reason to keep at it, day after day. Deliberate practice isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not immediately profitable. It means being in the pool before sunrise, working on your swing or stride when you could be hanging out with friends, practicing fingering or breathing in a windowless room, spending hours perfecting details that only a few other people will ever notice. There’s little that’s inherently or immediately pleasurable in deliberate practice, so you need a strong sense that these long hours will pay off, and that you’re not just improving your career prospects but also crafting a professional and personal identity. You don’t just do it for the fat stacks. You do it because it reinforces your sense of who you are and who you will become.

This is the reason I show up week after week to write for this weblog with little to no immediate incentive. This also reminded me of my piece on being a pro — this is how and where I do deliberate practice.

Here’s how we can learn to have more deliberate practice and rest in our lives.

The most important thing to understand is that it’s not about the time spent at work, but the (high) energy you bring to work in the few hours you’re there and the results you get from it. Working fewer hours with increased intensity also acts as a wonderful constraint to get the right work done while leaving plenty of time for guilt-free play later.

Working for a few hours every day with full intensity is more important than spending longer hours at work with little to no intensity; the latter is neither effective nor sustainable in the long run and it only leads to burnout and stress.

On a similar note, consistency is also more important than intensity. Put another way, an hour spent exercising today is better than two tomorrow.

Deliberate practice requires you be a pro; you have to show up every day and do the work regardless of how you feel; it means following a process that will determine the outcome for you. You could also think of it in terms of having self-discipline.

Schedule your work based on the energy you have during the day and the week. You don’t want to be doing your most productive work when you have no energy left.

Work no more than 4-6 hours a day (with a focus on results), about 20-30 hours a week, and take the weekends off. Working fewer hours a day guarantees that after spending some downtime, you will have new ideas when you return to work on Monday; you will come back fresh with a renewed sense of focus.

Pang suggests that you have to devote more time thinking about how you use your time, organize your work, and assess what you did. You have to value your time; you can’t expect others to value your time if you don’t value it yourself.

Deliberate practice is the partner of deliberate rest. How one rests will separate the best from the merely good. How you spend your time resting away from work indirectly affects the quality of your work. We don’t accomplish things despite our rest; we accomplish things because of it. How are you doing on physical renewal (Eat, Move, Sleep)? How are you spending your downtime? Are you using that time well by way of personal growth or simply wasting that time away? You have to sleep more, rest more, and take frequent breaks in your work. Go for walks, hikes, etc. Spend time with your loved ones. Do fun things together. Play a sport. Pang suggests that some of our most creative work happens when we take the kinds of breaks that allow our unconscious minds to keep plugging away, which means that we can learn how to rest better.

You have to create the space and schedule for both solitary and collaborative work. Creative work requires an inward focus, new ideas, and deep exploration of complex ideas. It requires analysis, private reflection, contemplation, and solitude. This is one reason why I do the work in the way I do it.

John Cleese says that periods of focused concentration set us up for periods of sub-conscious creativity. This is why we are able to solve our problems much more easily when we are least thinking about them. We could be in the shower or engaged in things outside of work, which is when the solutions come to us more readily because we are giving ourselves the space to think about those things.

Be mindful of how you spend your time. Consume less (but better and timely) information as and when you need it.

There are times when you’re highly creative and times when you don’t want to do any thinking. Recognize those times and plan your work accordingly.

Give yourself the permission to do nothing at all and to be okay with it. When we are constantly stimulated, we lose the benefits of creative idleness and it affects our psychological balance.

The habits of deliberate practice include slowing down and practicing mindfulness. Recognize the value in doing nothing at all and just being mindful of yourself and those around you and being present rather than whipping out your phone the next time you find yourself in a queue.

Roger Federer frequently takes time away from tennis and comes back with fresh energy. Because of this, the quality of his game goes up significantly. He is playing some of the best tennis of his life and the big reason appears to be rest. During one instance, he took six months off only to come back and win a Grand Slam. It seems Federer is not the only athlete who takes frequent breaks from the game. Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps have both previously taken off from basketball and swimming respectively for different reasons at different times and have come back to win big.

In this article, the writer points out:

Sports are catching up to what workplace productivity experts have known for ages: time off is good for everybody. Rested employees are consistently better employees, with higher performances and morale. Non-rested employees are…a grumpy disaster waiting to happen.

I am in no way suggesting that we all take several months like Federer to rest and come back. That’s not the point (and we also don’t need it). What I am suggesting is that we take frequent breaks in the form of vacations.

It turns out that those who take regular vacations are physically healthier and have fewer mental issues, no burnout, and are less prone to cognitive challenges in later years.

It’s not just the time spent away from work (on vacation), but the quality of time spent doing it. Vacation is not about having the freedom to do nothing at all. In order to have a truly restorative vacation, you have to be engaged in things that have nothing to do with your work. Real relaxation doesn’t come from doing nothing at all; it comes from doing something different. Find an alternative outlook, change your environment, diversify your effort. There is a psychological benefit to doing things more active or engaging.

Rebuild your physical and psychological energy away from work on holiday. Detach yourself completely. A week-long vacation is the same as having a three-week (or longer) vacation in terms of the rest you feel. After about a week or so, you’ll start to get antsy. Pang says that the benefit of a week-long vacation lasts for about two months or so. Best practice would be to take a week to 10-day vacation every three months.

If taking a week-long vacation every quarter seems too far fetched for you, let’s start out by working only on weekdays and spending the weeknights and weekends doing things of interest outside of work. Set clear boundaries. Switch your phones off. Take a road trip.

We were never designed to spend long hours at work. We were designed to alternate between work and rest. The same is true when we exercise and it’s also true for your work. Without sufficient time to rest and renew, you will likely perform sub-optimally. We need to remind ourselves that it’s not the quantity of work that matters, it’s the quality.

Pang remains optimistic nonetheless. He thinks that even in today’s 24/7, always-on world, we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier. The point is, we spend too much time at work producing inadequate results at the cost of our downtime. It’s a Lose-Lose-Lose all the way. We have to learn to work better with fewer hours and spend our downtime well so we can come back to our work with renewed focus.

There is so much we could be doing with our downtime and it doesn’t have to come at the cost of our work. We often define ourselves only by the work we do, when in fact there is so much more to us beyond that. For most of us, our lives revolve around our work, when it should revolve around our life. Work should only be a means to an end. You’re not meant to spend all your time working. If that is all you do, when do you actually live?

Not only is it possible — it’s quite doable to work less (but better), rest more, spend more downtime doing things of interest and improving the quality of our work. You just have to make the time!

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