Changing perspectives on TIME and REST – an interview with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Changing perspectives on TIME and REST – an interview with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

By Sanne Clifford

Being busy seems to be the new standard of expressing our daily state in life. How did we go from ‘good’ or ‘fine’ to ‘very busy’ or even ‘too busy’? It could be named as a trend, another way of saying we are important or we are collectively loosing our (overworked) minds. Well, are we really?

I don’t believe ‘we’ are that busy all the time, but we might feel overwhelmed and have difficulties with prioritizing, dealing with pressure and expressing ourselves. Also there are some cultural differences in looking at how we spend our time. Nevertheless, noticing this made me decide to stop saying the ‘B’ word all the time and start looking into different perspectives of time. I realized I had a narrowed mind set too, about work-time versus time-off: how to prioritize and how to divide it. So feeling busy or not, the ideas and research of Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang helped in my process of opening up ways of looking at how to live life and accept a different ‘status quo’. I hope it will give you something too. Let’s open up our perspectives!

In a Dutch interview with NRC Pang states that we can get more creative if we know how to rest smartly: Shorter workdays make you more productive when the non-work related slots are spend with care. He knows from own experiences after a burnout in 2008: He completely changed his lifestyle, worked half days only and noticed many differences. He started asking: what is the relationship between creativity and work?

One of his biggest conclusions is the misinterpreted idea on rest. Instead of being a couch potato in front of the TV, he pleads for ‘active rest’: Research has shown that body and mind recover when being in active rest, such as walking, daydreaming and making doodles in your notebook.

As a continuation of this interview, I wrote Alex Soojung-Kim Pang three specific questions from our MADE4MOTION point of view: what about the physical aspect in active rest and the creativity-work relationship? Read along to what he has to say!

You found a structure and way for yourself how to prepare, boost and work in an effective way for your writing (getting up early, have everything prepared, walk the dog with a notebook at hand). You also explain that the other hours in the day have an effect on that creative work in the early morning.

How does the state of the body and movement fit into that daily or weekly rhythm?

“One of the things that really jumped out at me when I was researching REST was that our stereotypes of deep thinkers being physically weak and uninterested in sports is totally wrong.

Most of the people I talk about in REST— Nobel laureates, writers, painters, etc.— got some daily exercise, and many were serious athletes. At the very least, staying in good physical condition, and having physical outlets for nervous energy, helped them stay focused and creative, and often helped them live longer lives.

We often underestimate how physically taxing cognitive work is, but our brains are very greedy for fuel and oxygen. The better shape we’re in, the better able we are to supply our brains. It’s also the case that exercise actually stimulates brain growth.

It’s also the case that plenty of these people went on walks or did other physically engaging things that helped stimulate their creativity. Walks were by far the most popular, because they’re simple to organize, there’s now some good experimental evidence that walking boosts creativity, and it’s easy to interrupt a walk to write down a line of a poem or an idea about how to approach an experiment.”

Do you have experiences or ideas about the connection between movement and creativity?

“The study of the relationship between movement and creativity is one that’s still in its infancy. Some of this is oversight: most psychological tests of creativity simply don’t try to measure kinaesthetic activity, or ask people to sit at desks and work on problems. In other cases there are genuine methodological problems: real-time neuroscientific studies of the brain, which can show cognitive activity before “a-ha moments” etc., absolutely require the subject to be still in order to get a clear image.

However, there are a few studies that do show that freedom of movement or walking can support certain kinds of creative thinking. One recent study of children and creativity showed that they were more creative when they were able to use their hands to help visualize or work through ideas; there’s also plenty of work showing that walking boosts creativity. I talk more about this here.

I’ve also noticed that plenty of designers and computer programmers will fidget, or rock back and forth, or pace when they’re deep in thought: there’s something about rhythmic motion that seems to support concentration, if not creativity.

There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that engaging in physically risky activities like rock-climbing boosts creativity, though why that’s the case isn’t entirely clear. Some of it is the psychological charge that comes from challenging activities, and the restorative element of challenging sports (you really can’t think about work when you’re on a surfboard and dropping into a wave, or are dangling from a cliff); presumably it also builds confidence and an ability to focus.”

How do you let go of the ‘to do’s’ or ideas when you stop working and go into your active rest time, so you can actually enjoy it?

“One of the reasons very creative people often have very challenging, mentally absorbing hobbies is that they provide an effective escape from work. Here’s what Winston Churchill had to say about the importance of hobbies for busy people:

It is no use saying to the tired ‘mental muscles’… / ‘I will lie down and think of nothing.’ The mind keeps busy just the same…. It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new starts become the lord of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded…. If this something else is rightly chosen, if it is really attended by the illumination of another field of interest, gradually, and often quite softly, the old undue grip relaxes and the process of recuperation and repair begins. The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man.

Right now I’m working on a paper on Britton Chance, who was both one of the 20th century’s great biophysicists, and a world-class yachtsman who won a gold medal in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Chance spent 12-hour days in the lab, but every weekend he was on the water, and even his graduate students report that once he crossed the bridge near his cottage on the water, he switched gears completely from science to sailing. For him, sailing was the only thing as completely absorbing as science, and he recognized the need to have breaks— to work 60-hour weeks rather than 84-hour weeks.

What this means for people who find their work absorbing (either for positive or negative reasons) need active rest that is just as absorbing; it’s not enough to assume that you can just hang out and do nothing.”

So think again when you look at the clock and decide to work late or not, or when you hang on your couch and want to turn on the television. In these moments you might reconsider your options and even start reading Pang’s book about active rest.

Rest – why you get more done when you work less’, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.
Penguin Books Ltd, 320 pages, 15,99 euro.

Also available in Dutch:
Rust in Uitvoering, Alex Pang. Kosmos Uitgevers, 351 pagina’s, 20 euro.

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