Rest More to Get More Done | Alex Pang on The Artists of Data Science Podcast
On this episode of The Artists of Data Science, we get a chance to hear from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang PhD, a futurist who studies people, technologies and the worlds they make. He’s the founder of Strategy and Rest, a consulting company in Silicon Valley and a visiting academic at Stanford University.
He’s also an author, having written books such “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less”, “The Distraction Addiction”, and most recently, “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less”.
Dr. Pang shares with us his journey of encountering the psychology behind creativity, the future of tech and its applications, and the importance of rest to work better and more creatively.
Dr. Pang gives us a unique perspective into work-life balance, and why companies and individuals that adopt more rest in their daily routines perform better than their competition.
Some notable segments from the show
[9:38] Biggest concerns of tech in the near future
[19:07] What is deliberate rest?
[23:10] What is the default mode network, and why is it important?
[34:08] A good daily routine for productivity
[46:55] Are shorter workweeks better?
Where to listen to the episode
Alex’s journey into the tech world
Dr. Pang’s journey began during his undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studies the history of science. He took a class on the invention and discovery in the arts and sciences, where he was introduced to the psychology of creativity. Ever since then, he has been pondering on some of the questions that arose from this class in his books. This also sparked his interest in rest, and the role it plays in our lives.
Dr. Pang often burned out in his career, due to the amount of projects and travel he had. When attending the Microsoft research facility in Cambridge, he noticed that he was full of energy and ideas, even though he was working a lot. He didn’t feel pressured or overwhelmed in any way. This led to the idea that we can actually achieve more and do deeper work if we recognize the power of rest. This led to the creation of his book, “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.”
[3:25] I think that this interest in the role of resting creative lives and the way that organizations can play a role in helping support that in their employees is one that actually has really deep roots…I think that I really started to recognize the value of rest, both as something to cultivate in one’s own life, but also kind of subject to investigate and to write about.”
Where is tech headed in 2–5 years?
Dr. Pang believes that we will continue to see the expansion of A.I. and automation in many sectors.
He also sees some interesting work being done in autonomous vehicles, but not for transporting people, but instead focused on transporting goods.
He also thinks that we are going to see a lot of work being done in the public health sector, especially due to COVID-19. We will need to reimagine our modern day workspaces, to allow for safer environments where viruses don’t thrive as much as they do now.
Lastly, he believes that we are going to see the reimagining of the workday. Instead of having the normal 40 hour workweek, we may see a shift in the number of days and hours we work. The future of tech has trends that we all see, but the way these trends affect certain sectors is what is challenging to figure out, especially in different parts of the world. He hopes that technology offers more flexibility, freedom, and autonomy.
[6:49] “The challenge is figuring out how it’s going to play out in different industries or different parts of the world, thinking about how we can control and shape those technologies and their users so that they give us more flexibility, more autonomy, more freedom, as opposed to just eliminating our jobs or doing other bad things.”
Key takeaways from the episode
Biggest concerns of tech in the near future
[9:38] Questions around how to automate different kinds of industrial functions or transportation are going to get even more urgent, especially with the current economy. The way technology will impact the world is not yet set in stone, but hopefully it is used to help workers be more productive in producing valuable work.
How to mitigate our distractions from technology
[12:13] We currently live in a world that has been created to distract us and make money doing so. That being said, humans have the capacity to avoid these distractions and focus their attention when needed. We need to practice recognizing these distractions, and realize how they can impact our lives.
What is rest, and what’s the problem with it?
[14:57] The problem with rest is that we don’t get enough of it, and we don’t take it seriously. There is a badge of honor with overwork. Overwork has been romanticized in the workplace, where people look at success as working extremely long hours to reach the position they want. This view overshadows the importance of rest, which is essential to do good work and be creative. Overwork is costly for the individual and the organization.
What is deliberate rest?
[19:07] Top performers practice and rest differently than most people. In fact, top performers usually slept more, on average, than most performers. The idea of deliberate rest is that it is possible to incorporate periods of rest and hobbies into your daily routine in ways that both increase your capacity for work, that help you become more creative and also does help you have a better life.
Why rest benefits intellectual work
[21:01] Most cognitive work is more physical than we realize. It requires us to absorb the world around us. Cognitive work can be very draining, even though it isn’t physical labor. The more we improve our physical performance, the more stamina we develop for cognitive work.
The default mode network
[23:10] The default mode network is the set of brain patterns that activate when we relax our attention and we don’t think about anything at all. You might think your brain isn’t having any activity, but it is actually switching gears into a different way of thinking. It is correlated with visual thinking and with creativity. This is the type of thinking that takes place when you work intensely on a problem, take a break, and come back with a solution. Even when you aren’t focusing on the problem, your brain is working at it.
Misconception of rest
[29:20] The most restorative rest is physical activity. Most people think of watching TV, but this doesn’t benefit us nearly as much. Another aspect to rest is that you can get better at it. As you learn how to rest better and when to rest, you can build a routine around it to maximize its benefits.
A good daily routine
[34:08] A good daily routine builds in time for focused work and rest. This balance allows for creativity to enter into your work. Creativity can be brought upon by having well thought out routines that allow for focused work to happen, followed by rest.
What is design thinking?
[38:04] Design thinking is allowing users to get in early on with your product. This allows for the creators to get user feedback, which they can use to release version 2.0 and so on. Companies that follow design thinking are open to continuous experimentation, brainstorming, prototyping, testing and then going back and improving. This type of framework can be used on the individual level as well, to improve how you do work and improve processes.
Leadership mindset for shorter workweeks
[46:55] The biggest difference is how companies with shorter workweeks view time. They view shorter days as more productive work, and longer work days as something that has gone wrong. These companies also want more sustainable work for their employees, rather than working them to death. They want employees to stick around for the long haul.
[36:35] “Routine’s serve as a foundation for creativity rather than an obstacle to it, as we often tend to believe.”
[48:22] “You give anybody enough time to solve a problem and they can solve it. The person who really impresses me now is the person who doesn’t need 12 hours to solve a problem, but can do it in 6 and be out of here.”
[1:00:50] “…you can continue exploring things, deepening your skills, pushing into new areas, no matter what stage you are in your career.”
The one thing that Alex Pang wants you to learn from his story
[52:54] Take rest seriously. The world will always have one more task for you, but you need to carve out time to rest. It’s crucial not just in the short run, but the long run as well.
From the lightning round
Favorite way to rest
Going on walks with my dogs.
Most bizarre aspect of the human mind
The default node network is absolutely astonishing. It turns on in a blink of an eye. There is so much going on in our brains that we are not in control of or aware of.
What do you believe that other people think is crazy?
The four day week is something that still receives some skepticism, but it is finally getting more acceptance. It can be done by any company with virtually no cost.
Be yourself, but even more so. Write everyday.
What he’d put on a billboard
Take rest seriously.
Advice to his 20 year-old self
It is difficult to advise your younger self, since the challenges you’ve overcome resulted in who you are today. But I would say, have children at a younger age. Children are amazing, but require a lot of time and energy.
Topic outside of data science we should study
The psychology of creativity.
Nonfiction: “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
What does creativity have to do with being a good scientist?
Creativity is implicated in every part of science. Whether solving large problems or small ones, creativity is somehow involved. You can’t be a good scientist without being creative.
Song on repeat
“Absolute Zero” an album by Bruce Hornsby, Jack DeJohnette, and Justin Vernon
Books and other media mentioned in this episode
How you can connect with Alex Pang
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The transcript for this episode can be found here.