Opinion: Five keys to unlocking a creative, restful life

Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, including “Work & Days” and “Rift Zone.” She is the editor of the anthology, “Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens & the Hands That Tend Them.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

It’s officially summer. The light is creeping in at early hours, and students of all ages are out of school. Perhaps you have a vacation coming up. Perhaps, like me, you’re able to sleep a few minutes more before the start of your kids’ summer camp. Perhaps you’re downshifting from a crazy academic routine. Perhaps, like me, you’re desperately needing to recharge, and wondering what you can do to savor your downtime a little more.

Tess Taylor  - Adrianne Mathiowetz
Tess Taylor - Adrianne Mathiowetz

For me, this was a brilliant, happy year, but also a hustle. I traveled a lot. I did almost non-stop work events. I launched a book. And though I spent the year talking about things I care about — poetry, sustainability, diversity, gardens, art — I arrived at the end of May feeling unsustainably worn. I had what seemed like an almost permanent ache behind my eyes.

I found myself wondering if I could learn a few things about how to live a more restful and rested life.  If, like me, you’re wondering about how to rest more, and rest better, you’re in luck.  Although I often use this space to write about poems and poetry, this summer, if all goes well, I’m writing exclusively about rest, and resting — and interviewing America’s experts in the art of unplugging.  I hope you’ll follow along.

First up:  Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Director of Research and Innovation at 4 Day Week, a nonprofit which helps companies, nonprofits and governments adopt shorter work weeks, without cutting salaries or sacrificing productivity. He’s the author of several books including “Work Less Do More: Designing the Four Day Week; Shorter: Work Better Smarter and Less.” But to start, I recommend reading his book “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.” I spoke to Alex this June by Zoom to hear his tips for us and to learn more.

What made you first want to write about rest?

I live in Silicon Valley — the world’s capital of overwork. Like everyone here, I’ve struggled with overwork and burnout, and for a long time just saw them as part of normal life, or the price of doing great work.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang - Andreas Gebert/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang - Andreas Gebert/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

But on a sabbatical in Cambridge, I had an experience that convinced me that not only were my familiar ways of working unsustainable, they were actually counterproductive. I became convinced that by taking rest seriously, rethinking our daily routines, acknowledging the role our creative subconscious has in generating great ideas and making more space for apparently “unproductive” but generative activities, we could still do fulfilling work and have more sustainable careers, as well as richer and longer creative lives.

You talk a lot about rest, but you actually spend a lot of time studying the forces that allow us to be successfully creative. You also study what makes the difference between good and excellent work.

In college, one of my formative classes was on invention and discovery in the arts and sciences, and about the psychology of creativity. When you study the lives of creative people, you focus on the times they’re working — which is logical because you’re interested in the work they produce. This means looking at their time in the lab or office, reading their notebooks, looking at drafts of novels or scores.

But this exclusive focus on creative output directs attention away from periods of apparently unproductive downtime or leisure, when the mind is still actually working away on problems that a person may not have been able to solve through conscious effort. This is a critical phase in the creative process, but we haven’t had a framework to understand it, and so we’ve tended to ignore it. It’s remained a black box.

New research on the neuroscience of creativity has opened up that black box. It shows us that our accounts of creative lives need to consider not just how their subject worked, but how they rested, too.

Really, I’m still just trying to answer the big questions that a professor of mine posed in my freshman year: How do insights happen? What makes for a creative life? How can we apply lessons from creative lives to our own?

Listening to you, I’m imagining some of our readers might wonder: Who gets to be a creative? Is this “resting” thing only for people with certain kinds of jobs?

I would make two points. First, the language around “creative work” and “creatives” is misleading. Thanks for robotics and automation, most routine stuff that can be done by a machine is being done by a machine. What’s left is creative work, whether we call it “creative” or not. For instancebeing a preschool teacher or a social worker or a sales rep is creative work: It requires judgment, empathy, decision making and problem solving.

What that means is that rest is for everybody. It’s obviously important for artists, or composers, or musicians. But people who do highly stressful, demanding jobs — nurses, emergency room doctors, first responders — also need deep rest to be successful.

People who flourish in stressful, demanding jobs are ones who have good boundaries between work life and their personal lives. They have hobbies or serious second vocations that provide respite from their work, that provide some psychological satisfaction, and a permission structure for switching off the phone. This gives them time for rest, and a greater ability to be creative under pressure.

Tell me about the magical day in the life of someone who rests.

First off, work! Ideally, you’d work really hard for 90-120 minutes, because that’s the longest that we can sustain attention before we sort of tune out, followed by 30 minutes of rest. Do that maybe two or three times, and you can have a great day and get an amazing amount done.

So what’s your routine?

When I’m working on a book, I’m up between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. I work until 7:00 a.m., then stop and take the dogs out. That’s a creative break for me. Solutions to problems I’d just been working on will often come to when on the walk. I carry a notebook to capture them.

Then I have a second deep work session from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., after which I deal with email and so on. So I’m done before lunch. After lunch and a nap I do life admin or go to the gym. In the evening, I set up for the next morning: I lay out clothes, set up the coffee pot and put a post-it on my computer with three things to tackle the next morning.

Talk to me about your advocacy for the four-day workweek.

Too often we have to figure out how to create more rest on our own, and this can put us at odds with our colleagues and employers. But everyone is suffering from burnout and overwork and struggles with work-life balance. The four day week lets everyone rest, and creates an incentive to work together to make it possible. Collective action is the most potent form of self-care.

The beauty of the four-day week is that by implementing across an entire company, the search for rest is transformed from a zero-sum game into a win-win. Everyone has to work together if they’re all going to finish the work week on Thursday: my success depends on helping you be more focused and efficient, so we can all enjoy a three-day weekend.

Surveys tell us that when you give people more time, they do ridiculously wholesome things with it. They spend time with family, exercise more, cook healthier meals and even sleep more — all things that contribute to better health and wellbeing, and are essential to living a more creative life. In short, the four-day week allows all of us to find better ways of working so that we can rest together.

I’m assuming you’re going to encourage everyone to really take their vacation this summer?

Of course! Vacations are not just a reward for good service to capitalism. Science tells us that they are a critical source of renewable energy, a chance to recharge over the long run. They help us have better lives, they help us be healthier.

In an ideal world, you’d take a week off every three months, because happiness levels peak around day eight, and the benefits of vacations last about two months. But the only bad vacation is the one you don’t take.

So turn off your work email. Switch off your phone. Get out of the house. Let your kids run around in the sun. Consider this permission.

Here is Alex’s advice on how to unplug this summer:

1. Take your lunch hour. Lunches generally are a legally protected time. You have the right to get away from your desk and spend your lunch with colleagues. If you socialize at lunch, you may be more focused afterwards. And research shows that eating together actually improves teamwork, coordination and collaboration: For example, firefighters who plan and plan meals and cook together actually perform better than those that don’

2. Make your meetings shorter and walk if you can:  Many of us agree that most meetings are too long or a waste of time. Short meetings stimulate creativity, generate fewer but more actionable to-dos, and create less busy-work. And if you can take them while walking, that gets your brain moving too, so you can get back to your desk with a little extra creative charge.

3. Take ALL your vacation: You may think that not taking vacations shows that you are more motivated or devoted to employers or clients. The reality is people who take their vacations are more productive, more likely to be promoted and have longer careers.

4. Have a hobby that gets you in the flow. It’s not enough just to tell yourself, I’m going to switch off my phone and put work out of my mind. Have something else to occupy you. People who are driven need stimulation, and they find it through serious, strenuous dangerous hobbies — everything from weight training to gardening to rock climbing to playing an instrument. For super-busy ambitious people, serious hobbies provide both a psychological escape and a permission structure for rest.

5. Give your kids down time. For those of us who are parents, remember that vacations are a great opportunity for children to discover how rewarding it can be to manage themselves a little more. One of the traps of the 21st century is that it’s easy to believe that a successful vacation is planned out hour by hour, especially in finding enriching, educational and diverting things for our kids.

But kids benefit a lot from learning how to do nothing, how to fill hours themselves. Kids who have more time doing apparently nothing are more resilient, psychologically better balanced and even score higher on creativity tests than those who are constantly overscheduled.

So this summer, try throwing your kids out of the house after breakfast. Let them roam a bit more free. Science says you should. Just don’t forget the sunscreen.

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