Book review: Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
We've been thinking about rest all wrong, according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Rest, Pang argues, is not the absence of work but work’s ally. In her review, MeaningSphere's Anna Weltner draws out some insights on the interplay between rest and meaningful work.
On its face, it’s easy to mistake Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less for something it isn’t. When I try to describe the book to a friend, the conversation reveals the deep misconceptions that exist around the subject of resting. Rest is not about sleep, although it’s not not about sleep. Despite the tagline’s seductive equation (work less, get more done!), it would be totally missing the point of Pang’s book to treat it as a set of productivity-boosting tools for the already overworked; or, conversely, as permission to do some mindless scrolling at the end of an exhausting day. Rather, Pang’s definition of rest is engaged, deliberate, and restorative, a “yin” to the “yang” of equally deliberate and focused work. (Not that there’s anything New Age-y or mystical about it—Rest is deeply researched and cited to the hilt.)
“This is a book about work,” begins Pang in Rest. And it’s true: rest is what makes work possible. Rest and work exist as inter-reliant opposites, so you can’t speak about one without invoking the other. In Pang’s conception, rest is not the absence of work but work’s ally. Rest is active, more verb than noun. Rest is a practiced skill and describes not just REM cycles but things like hobbies, flow states, novel experiences, exercise, and something called “deep play.”
Pang spends a few chapters situating and grounding the topic of rest in both historical and scientific terms, before moving on to specific aspects from which to examine the subject. There’s a chapter dedicated to sleep, and another dedicated to naps. A chapter called “Walk” examines the unique relationship between walking and thinking, especially creative problem-solving.
In “Four Hours,” one of the most compelling chapters, Pang demonstrates how many of history’s great thinkers got the bulk of their work done in roughly four hours, often leaving the remaining time for administrative tasks, letter-writing, and leisure. If you were a great thinker, the point wasn’t the duration of your work but the intensity and regularity with which you put the hours in every day.
Equally important to the number of hours was how and when they worked, illuminated in a chapter called "Morning Routine." This subject is covered extensively in Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, one of my oft-recommended books that feels almost like a companion text to Rest.
I always felt a little bemused by these accounts of great thinkers' routines, despite my fascination with them. They often reveal a life of ease in which a calm, quiet place to work is considered a given; where cooking, cleaning, childcare, and household logistics are overseen by domestic staff. It's hard to imagine the ideal routine transposed onto the life of a working single mom or college student in a cramped dorm.
Fortunately, many of the insights Pang has gathered are more actionable for the average person. I may not be able to escape to a small cottage on ten acres with a live-in cook at the end of a long workday, like Eisenhower did while planning Operation Torch, the U.S. invasion of North Africa (!). However, I can understand the benefit of psychological detachment from work as a means of restoring the body and brain’s resources during a period of heightened mental output. Additionally, the incorporation and detailed explication of the scientific research that now supports such historical anecdotes elevates Pang’s work.
This emphasis on scientific sources, as compared to, say, personal experience, is a notable choice for a subject as self-help adjacent as resting. I read Rest at the same time as another book, Tom Vanderbilt's Beginners, and was struck not only by the synergy between the two texts (both talk about, for example, how hobbies benefit cognition) but by the differences in both authors' approaches. Vanderbilt builds trust with the reader by situating himself as a beginner; a newbie. Beginners opens with a humorous first-person description of the author at a chess match losing to a child, while his young daughter leaves the same match victorious and giddy. Vanderbilt's book often uses such personal examples to introduce new passages and themes, weaving in scientific studies to explain them.
Pang, by contrast, stays at a journalistic distance from the reader, preferring to build credibility through the breadth of his research, which includes everything from peer-reviewed studies, to interviews with researchers, to historic figures' journals. He is seldom preachy, allowing a glimpse his opinion only at the very end of a chapter or passage. Despite this authorial remove, Rest is highly absorbing read. Pang's gift is his ability to process a large volume of information into a seamless, almost conversational flow. His prose is clear and steady, patiently unspooling insights without unnecessary dazzle, hyperbole, or salesmanship. Here are some tools, the book seems to say. Feel free to use them.
It was precisely the breadth of Pang's examples that led to an insight of my own. Rest draws wisdom on resting from anywhere it can credibly be found (ancient Greek philosophers, famous novelists, high-powered CEOs, and the military are all invoked), employing a kind of moral agnosticism in the process. Pang challenged me to be open to learning tactics on rest from people in direct ideological opposition to myself. ("Do I really have to learn about napping from U.S. fighter pilots in Iraq?" I thought. "Or about recovery from the Israeli military? Or the benefits of walking from some Silicon Valley ghouls?")
It occurred to me that resting, that being well, does not itself make a person good. Having externalized it, this insight now seems laughably obvious. However, when you consider how often poor decision-making or low empathy are attributed to burnout, stress, fatigue, overwhelm, and other indicators of insufficient rest, the false equation of morality with rest appears almost logical.
No, no, no. There's nothing inherently moral in resting (neither is there in working late)! To be rested is simply to function at your best. Rest doesn't promise anything more, though this alone is quietly radical. You can learn to nourish the brain with naps, exercise, play, and a change in environment; making yourself better able to solve problems and cope with emotionally taxing workplaces. If you like, you can set the subconscious to work while you take country walks or dream, rather than laboring fruitlessly at the computer on a problem that just won't budge. Refreshingly, Rest has little opinion on how you should be spending your working life. Instead, this well-researched and valuable text can be treated as a set of tools for doing your best work sustainably--and perhaps more meaningfully, too.
Anna Weltner is an arts journalist turned documentary filmmaker. She lives in Portland, Ore. with her husband and cat, and works as a writer and content curator at MeaningSphere.
Image credits: Shutterstock, Unsplash