Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author and speaker, is the global programs and research manager for 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit focused on advancing the 4-day work week. He speaks around the world about the 4-day week and the future of work, and talks about how deliberate rest makes creative careers more productive and sustainable.
Alex is the author of four books including Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less – Here’s How, and Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.
He received his B.A. and Ph.D. in history of science from the University of Pennsylvania. He also studied corporate planning at the Wharton School. He taught history of science at Williams College, UC Berkeley and UC Davis and also worked for several years as the managing editor of Encyclopedia Britannica. He launched his company Strategy and Rest after working as a senior consultant at Institute for the Future and Strategic Business Insights in Silicon Valley.
In this week’s podcast, Alex and Sonya talk about the benefits of rest, the future of work, and more.
“We have this phenomenon where our minds do a really good job working on problems even when our formal attention is somewhere else. So we all have that experience of trying to remember the name of the actor that was in a movie and that other thing and it’s on the tip of your tongue and you can’t remember it and two minutes later you’re doing something else and it pops into your head. Oh right, that was Scarlett Johansson. That is our subconscious minds continuing to work on problems even when we’re focused on other things. And that phenomenon is one that our minds are actually really good at. And, if given the opportunity, sort of will default to trying to do. And one of the things that deliberate rest offers is space for our creative self-conscious to continue working on problems, working on projects, even while we’re doing other things.”– Alex Pang
- Why we overwork and don’t rest
- What is deliberate rest?
- Default mode network and mind wandering
- The power of naps
- Intellect and athletics
- The 4 ways to rest
- Power of routine for creativity
- How many hours should we work?
- Learn more about Alex and Strategy and Rest
- Take a listen to my episode on The Science of Meditation with Dr. David Vago
- Check out my Substack about high-performance mindset
- Sign up for my weekly newsletter!
Sonya Looney: Welcome to the show.
Alex Pang: Well, thanks very much for having me.
Sonya: For the listener who’s not familiar with you and your work, can you give us a brief overview?
Alex: Sure. So my name is Alex Pang. And I work for a nonprofit called 4-Day Week Global which is evangelizing the four day week. And I’m also a writer, and my most recent couple books are about, first off, the four day week, and then before then about the hidden role of rest in the lives of really creative and prolific people. So that’s who I am.
Sonya: And how did you come across that idea? Or where did it come from, for you to write about that? Because it’s kind of not what a lot of people think about.
Alex: No, it’s not. I had the idea. It actually came from a personal experience. I have lived in Silicon Valley for the last 20 or so years and have worked in think tanks and as a sort of technology forecaster, and futurist. So a lot of project work, a lot of you know, stuff and who would have with clients with high expectations and being in Silicon Valley, right? Overwork becomes sort of the, you know, just the way that the way that you work. And a while ago, I had reached, as many do, kind of reached a point where I realized this wasn’t working for me any longer, and had the opportunity fortunately to take a break and go to Microsoft Research and sort of join one of their research teams in Cambridge, England. And while I was over there, about halfway through my visit, I realized, I had this kind of epiphany, where I realized I was getting huge amounts of stuff done, I was having all these cool ideas, I was talking to really interesting people. But I didn’t feel the kind of time pressure and the sort of sense of being constantly overworked and sort of half a step behind that is just part of normal life in Silicon Valley. You know, and at the same time, I had all kinds of time for going out with my wife. We would go on weekends to London, or up to Edinburgh or other places. And it made me think, you know, maybe our assumptions that are, in order to do really good work, we have to be constantly on, we have to be always available, we have to be working, you know, sort of the ideal would be to work 16 hour days. Maybe all of that is actually backwards, that in order to do the work that we really care about, that sort of moves the needle in the world, that it’s necessary to rethink the relationship between work and time. And to sort of in a sense, work less so that we have more opportunity to think about what we’re working on, sort of to think deeply and to sort of have the energy necessary to work at a high level. So this kind of stuck around in my mind for a while. I wrote a different book in the interim, but it was one of those ideas that kind of latches on to you. And eventually I started looking into research and neuroscience and psychology and found actually a whole bunch of work that explained why it was that periods of leisure or apparently unproductive times are actually super important for creative work and indeed for all kinds of activity. And between that, and stories that I had accumulated from Nobel Prize winners and deeply creative people whose lives are really well documented and whose daily schedules are really well understood, I realized there’s actually an interesting story here to be told about the role that rest turns out to play in helping people do their best work. And so that’s the origin story for this project.
Sonya: Do you think that in order for people to want to consider this idea that they have to have touched that fire and had burnout or had you know, overworking problems?
Alex: I would like to say no. The empirical evidence suggests yes, you know, that virtually everybody I write about in the book discovers the importance of, of rest in their creative lives after having a health crisis, or burnout or something that forces them to have to go to a re-appraisal. And I think that the bad news is, we all seem to have to learn the hard way. I think partly because many of us have very good coping skills. We are able to kind of adapt poor habits, or adapt to them well enough so that we’re able to sort of perform reasonably well, while not getting enough sleep or doing other things that really in the long run aren’t good for us. And consequently, it really requires some kind of crisis to make us reevaluate. The good news, though, is that even the smartest people have to come at this the hard way. And it is never too late for any of us to discover the value rest in our lives. So that’s the upside of sort of the fact that we all seem to have to sort of come at this, or have come with us through the hard route.
Sonya: And it seems like culturally, you know, in North America, especially, as you mentioned, we were looked at as, oh, that person is very competent, or that person is very accomplished, because they’re working so hard. They’re so busy, they have all these projects on the go, therefore, they must be productive, therefore, they must be successful. And in a lot of the work that you do with four day work week, it’s sort of bumping up against that, that cultural norm and saying, hey, wait a second, like this maybe isn’t the way that we should be, or this isn’t the way that we should be doing this. So culturally, that’s that’s a big hard shift that needs to be made. How are you and your organization addressing that?
Alex: So you’re absolutely right, that there are all kinds of sort of cultural pressures that are layered on top of economic and structural and other things that sort of encourage us to kind of default to overwork. But I think that one of the things that the companies that have moved the four day weeks have taught me is that you don’t have to change the culture first, and then change the way that people work. Instead, it actually kind of proceeds in reverse that culture follows practice. It doesn’t precede it. So what I mean by that is that, you know, companies that move to four day weeks, usually have historically done so because the founders themselves have had some kind of some kind of crisis, or, you know, they lose out half of their development team or a couple of critical, you know, chefs in the sort of in the kitchen quit. There’s something that that makes the company realize they’ve got to make a big change. But, you know, so they try a four day week as a way of solving a very, very practical kind of business problem. And it’s only after that change is in place, that they start thinking differently about the relationship between, let’s say, time and productivity and profitability. You know, I had a CEO who told me that, you know, before they moved to a four day week, he very much hired for people who could work long hours, sleep under their desks, who would you know, who’d be very devoted to their jobs, and he said, now, you know, I look back on that, and I wonder what in the world was I was I thinking, right? Someone who needs 12 hours to do a job is not twice as good as someone who can do that job in six hours. They’re half as good. And yet, I was hiring for the half as good person. But, you know, it’s not that that CEO had that kind of mental shift first, and then started hiring. It’s that they made the change first. And so I think that the important thing here is that, you know, we often think of culture as this really kind of broad diffuse thing that is difficult to change that has so many different parts and is, you know, and is reinforced by so many different kinds of other forces, be they economic, social, what have you. But I think the good news is that you don’t actually have to change the culture, in order to do things like move to a four day week. The culture change follows what follows those other changes, and ultimately reinforces them, but it doesn’t have to happen first.
Sonya: In your book, you had an amazing historical account of all of these different people who have made large impacts in society who did things to rest, who worked less. And as we talked about earlier, maybe they learned the hard way that that they had to do that in order to be their best. So if somebody listening to this says, okay, I’m interested, why should I rest? What is rest? So and you talk about deliberate rest in your book. So can you define what that is?
Alex: Sure. So, you know, we often think of rest as this completely passive thing, right? It’s like sitting on the sofa with a bag of snacks in one hand, and, you know, sort of TV remote and the other. But, you know, one of the things that I learned in the course of researching this book was that the most restorative, most beneficial kinds of rest, the ones that help us best recharge, the mental and physical battery energy that we kind of spend when we’re working, are actually not completely passive, but actually active. Sitting on the sofa, like, you know, binging a show has its place, but we get a bigger recharge out of active stuff, right? Whether that is going on walks, exercise, working out, or doing stuff in the world, or doing what have mentally interesting and engaging things that are kind of different from our day jobs. But I think that what we see in the lives of people who take that kind of rest seriously and make room for it, is that it helps make people’s lives more balanced and more sort of sustainable. But it also serves in the immediate run in providing a kind of space in which people are able to kind of continue thinking about hard problems, even while their conscious minds are somewhere else. We have this phenomenon where our minds do a really good job of working on problems, even when our formal attention is somewhere else. So, you know, we all have that experience of trying to remember, like the name of the actor who was in the movie in that other thing, and it’s on the tip of your tongue and you can’t remember it. And then two minutes later, you’re doing something else and all of a sudden pops into your head. Right? It was oh, that was Scarlett Johansson. That is our subconscious minds continuing to work on problems even when we are focused on other things. And that phenomenon is one that our minds are actually really good at. And if given the opportunity, sort of will default to trying to do. And one of the things that deliberate rest offers is space for our creative subconscious to continue working on problems, working on projects, even while we are doing other things. And for people who are doing deep creative work, this is really, really important because very often, some critical piece of a puzzle, or new insight or approach to a problem comes through that process, right? Not through banging your head on the whiteboard for hours and hours. And so making time for that turns out to help you do better work, solve problems sort of faster and more deeply, even as it also makes it possible for you to have better lives and sort of longer, more sustainable careers.
Sonya: Yeah, so going and doing something else while you’re working on a problem that’s unrelated to the work that you were doing, your brain doesn’t actually shut off, your brain actually continues to work on the problem in your subconscious, even if you don’t realize that it’s happening. So while you might feel like you’re doing nothing, or you’re not being productive at work, switching to a different mode, you are still being productive at work just in a way that you’re not aware of.
Alex: That’s exactly right. Yeah. You know, our minds do a really good job of continuing to work on problems, even in the absence of conscious effort. And this is something that there can be a negative version of it, right, when of when you continue thinking about some issue at work, you know, or some conflict and you have a hard time kind of putting it down and getting out of your mind. But the positive version of it is, you know, comes in those periods where you’re working on something that is complicated, it’s challenging, maybe it’s got a lot of different moving parts and even while you are doing other sort of less complicated things, some of those ideas, the unsolved problems, are still turning over in the back of your mind. And so kind of giving your yourself more time to let that sort of creative subconscious part operate, to work through potential solutions, turns out to be a really, really valuable way to make progress on problems and sort of, ultimately, to do better work than you would if you just continue trying to grind away at things.
Sonya: Yeah, in your book, you talk about how the brain is always active. And then you also talk about the default mode network and the power of mind wandering. So can you talk more about those?
Alex: Sure. So the default mode network is something that neuroscientists started seeing about 30 years ago now, when, through fMRI machines, functional magnetic resonance, these are the big machines you put people in, and you get these really pretty pictures of sort of the brain at work. One of the things that they saw was that when you put people in an fMRI machine and tell them to just relax and think about nothing at all, the brain doesn’t actually like shut off, it sort of feels like it. But what’s going on is that different parts of the brain start connecting together. Neuroscientists talk about what are these, these connectomes, these networks of different brain regions that are sort of self assembled to deal with different kinds of problems. And what they realized was that when we unfocus our attention, our brains aren’t going quiet; it’s just different parts of our brains are activated. And they call this the default mode network. And the default mode network connects parts of the brain that are implicated in problem solving, in spatial or visual thinking. They’re parts that we often draw upon when we’re doing especially creative things. And the default mode is capable of switching on literally in the time it takes you to blink your eyes. So, you know, our brains are really, really good at switching over to the default mode. Now, a second group of scientists or psychologists or creativity, got interest at around the same time, of what happens in the mind what happens to us, when we are mind wandering, right? When we are relaxing our attention and not consciously thinking about anything at all, where do our minds go, what do they think about? And it turns out that for most of us, number one, a good part of our days, is spent not focused on particular things, but actually kind of zoning out. Roughly half of our half of our waking hours are spent mind wandering. And the second thing is that they don’t just kind of wander around at random. The wandering mind tends to ruminate on the past. So you know, turning over past events in our lives, thinking about the future or working on unsolved problems. And so put together and what this reveals is, the degree to which our minds, when left to their own devices, are actually really good at returning to problems that we’re working on and trying to solve and haven’t yet been able to. And that if you want to do a better job of solving difficult problems, it is actually really smart, to give yourself to give your mind more, or have more space for doing nothing, giving your mind time to wander so that it can wander over to unsolved problems or unresolved challenges, and come up with solutions on your behalf. So that’s the default mode network and the mind wandering.
Sonya: Yeah, and you talked about the importance of going for walks and how a lot of these influential people have gone for walks and carry notebooks with them to come up with their best ideas. And is that because it creates this environment for mind wandering and without distraction of people talking to you or your phone dinging or all of those problems?
Alex: That’s a big part of it. I think getting out of your normal environment is one part of what explains one the values, the creative value of walks. There does seem to be something about walking itself, that stimulates creativity. We don’t exactly know what it is. But there was a lovely experiment that a couple of people at Stanford did, where they were putting one group of people on treadmills, just like facing a concrete wall, and had another group of people out walking around on the Stanford campus, which is quite lovely. And then another group being pushed around campus in wheelchairs. And it turned out, I mean, if you assumed that getting out, you know, sort of seeing the trees, getting the fresh air was the main thing that would sort of stimulate your creativity, you might imagine that the people in the wheelchairs and the people walking sort of out in nature would score about as well on creativity tests. Well, it turns out that the people in the wheelchair scored lowest, and that it was actually the people on the treadmills scored below people who are just walking outside, but they did better than the people who were more passively exposed to the outdoors. And we don’t really quite know what is going on. Clearly, it’s got something to do with the physical stimulation of walking. It’s also got something to do with a certain comfort level that comes in walking at your own pace. Because if you walk really slowly, or if you have to keep up with someone, then you have, you actually have a harder time thinking well than if you’re walking at your own natural pace. But however, the bottom line is that there’s really amazing value in sort of taking walks as a means of solving problems. And obviously getting some air and some exercise.
Sonya: That study really stood out to me that someone could be in just like a blank room walking on a treadmill. And in green space is celebrated and has a lot of research around like reducing depression or you know, enhancing self actualization by being outside. But from a creativity standpoint, that’s what you’re talking about whenever you were talking about that study. So I just thought that that was really interesting.
Alex: And there is some evidence, there are other studies that have compared like, creative problem solving after walking in parks versus walking in industrial parks. And you do definitely get a little boost from being able to see the trees and the grass and so forth. You know, one of the benefits of exposure to nature are multi-dimensional. But if you have to make a choice between sort of walking and not walking, definitely walk.
Sonya: I want to move on to naps. That’s something that I personally struggle with. And I tried to lay down and I can’t fall asleep. And I thought it was great in your book how you talked about sleep pressure and timing your nap if you’re trying to boost like physical recovery versus creativity, and just the importance and power of naps. So can you talk about that?
Alex: Sure, this derives from a researcher named Sara Mednick, who was really the first person to seriously study napping. People have been studying sleep for decades, like, you know, putting people down in underground caverns and measuring, you know, circadian pressure and all sorts of things. But people have been…the interest always had been, like, sort of sleeping through the night, as opposed to naps. And so, sort of Sara Mednick was the first person really to seriously look at maps. And what she found was that, first of all, people who take naps are, tend to be healthier, they score better on creativity tests than people who don’t nap. And also that you can tweak the timing of your rest a little bit to get a little more of a creative boost versus a little more of like a physical recharge. And the effects are not gigantic, right, you know, a nap earlier in the day won’t turn you into Albert Einstein, whereas one later in the day will turn you into Simon Biles. However, you know, it’s like another feather on the scales. I think also that one of the things that we have learned since then, is that while being able to drop off, you know, and fall asleep completely is great, that even just lying down and being able to close your eyes for 20 minutes, that actually brings more benefit than you might think. The the opportunity to rest your brain or have to give your body a break that is more restorative than you might initially credit. So even if you can’t fall asleep, there’s still benefit to taking that kind of break.
Sonya: Yeah, since I read your book, that’s been something I’ve been trying to implement, and try not to put pressure on myself to fall asleep or be frustrated that I wasted time, because I laid down for 20 minutes. I think knowing what qualifies as rest is challenging for a lot of people, especially people listening to this podcast, because personally, I’m a professional athlete, but I also do a lot of like knowledge work. So exercise is something that is, you know, stress relief, and I do get my best creativity, or my best creative ideas when I’m out training. But that’s also not, quote, rest for me, because it’s part of my work. And then you come home, and then you get back on your computer, or you open up a book, and then you’re stimulating your brain. So finding ways to rest where I’m not necessarily stressing my body, because I’m working on that, but where I’m also not stressing my brain because I’m working on that at home. And that’s kind of the case for a lot of people that listen to this the show. And your book, he talks about four different ways to rest. So can you talk about what those are? And then people can try and slide those into their life in ways that makes sense?
Alex: Well, I think that first off that there are lots of people who are doing really serious intellectual stuff or, you know, deeply creative stuff, who also have these second lives as serious athletes, right? I mean, one of the things that I really regret is, we have in America this perception that if you’re athletic then you know, what if you’re not supposed to be intellectual, and vice versa. Well, it turns out that some of the smartest people, you know, are actually intensely athletic. And that there is a body of research that explains that these two things actually go together. And one of the things that I was really struck when I was writing the book was, you know, the number of people who are like Nobel Prize winning physicists who are also incredibly good mountain climbers, or are serious ultra marathoners or do other kinds of things that are really physically very strenuous. There’s a phenomenal study that was done of scientists in Southern California over the course of about 40 years. And it was looking at trying to understand what it is that separates really, really great scientists from just decent ones. And turned out, you know, they gave them like Rorschach tests and other things, couldn’t find any significant differences. And there was like one group of people who they were four Nobel laureates, people named chairs, etc. And then another group who were far less distinguished. And it turned out that the first group, the really high performing group, was a lot more athletic. There was one guy who was a really serious surfer, other people who were serious runners, sailors, etc. And they found basically, what seems to be the case is that, first of all, being in better physical shape means that you’re able to better support brain activity. But also, you’re better at time management. You tend to waste less time. And there is something about doing physically challenging things that seems to stimulate creativity, or seems to stimulate kind of intellectual risk taking, we’re still trying to figure that out, but there’s some sort of connection there. Now, the other thing that we learned is that, you know, these really serious hobbies tend to have a couple of qualities, right. One is that, you know, people who are, let’s say, serious scientists, and also mountain climbers, talk about both in similar kinds of terms. These deep hobbies, or deep play, as I call it in the book, you know, offer a lot of the same kinds of psychological rewards as sort of work when it goes well without the downsides. And so, if you’re a scientist and you’re a climber, you talk about climbing being a lot like science, right, you’ve got this big task, you break it down to a bunch of little parts, there’s a technical dimension to it, it requires a lot of stamina and concentration. So it’s like science when it goes really well except the outcomes are very, very clear and they happen very quickly. Either at the end of four hours, you’ve made it to the top or you haven’t. And, you know, for people who work in really, really complicated areas where projects can last years and outcomes can be really uncertain. That is a very rewarding thing. And over and over again, I think we see people adopting these kinds of hobbies as both a way of better managing their time of finding another outlet for creative or psychological expression. As a way of of sort of blowing off steam that, you know, that turn out to play a really important role in making their careers and their lives more balanced, and also providing a platform in which sort of new ideas can percolate and or merge.
Sonya: Yeah. So getting out there and taking on a physical challenge helps your intellect, it helps you be more creative, and it helps you in your job. So that’s just yet another reason why people should exercise. And even if it’s as simple as walking, going out for a walk, like that also will make a difference. So moving your body is a huge, huge role in this.
Alex: Yes, absolutely. You know, Annie Murphy Paul has a book that came out last year about the extended mind where she brings this story more up to date. But you know, we we tend to think of mental activity as just something that happens between like our brains and our eyes and screens. And that’s very incomplete. It turns out, we think with our whole bodies, and part of what that means is that the more attention we pay to sort of our physical condition and our physical shape, the better we are as thinkers, and the better we are as people able to act in the world.
Sonya: And I also had asked about the four ways to rest because, for me, a question that I had to tackle was, well, how am I supposed to rest? If I’m doing all these things all the time? Like, what’s the best way to rest? And in your book, you had relaxation, controlled recovery, mastery experiences and detachment. I wrote those down, I hope that those are correct.
Alex: Yeah, that comes from the work of a sort of German psychologist named Sabine Sonnentag, who was interested in understanding why it is that apparently strenuous things like surfing and mountain climbing, or intellectually challenging activities turn out to be really restorative. And it’s not about the number of calories that you expend, or don’t expend, it’s more about, like, the psychological benefits, or the position that those activities occupy. And so for people who are, especially for people in professions that are really cerebral fields that don’t have a physically strenuous component to them, unless, like, you know, standing for 10 hours a day is, you know, sort of is strenuous, there is a recovery dimension, you know, to doing things like potentially like lifting weights, or going for a run, that may not be present for, like, if you’re a shepherd or a construction worker. And so, you know, thinking in terms of the kinds of recovery, the detachment, the opportunity to exercise control in a hobby, or a sport or such, these are all things that contribute to how much recovery you get from an activity. And I think we tend not to think of hobbies, in those ways. But I think if you reflect on the things that have that you have enjoyed most, it’s often the case that the sort of that you find some combination of those present in whatever thing you have most and most consistently enjoyed.
Sonya: So what about the sitting on the couch with your chips in your your TV, is there a role that that also plays in rescue creativity?
Alex: Yeah, I think there was a, there was a role that it plays in sort of rest and recovery. But I think the important thing is that it is not synonymous with rest, right? That it turns out that you know, the most valuable kinds of rest are active rather than passive. The kinds of things we’ve been talking about whether it’s cognitively challenging things, whether it’s physically challenging, those are going in, both the immediate and the long run, going to do us more good than stuff that is purely passive.
Sonya: Creativity was like the thread underneath it all in in rest, it was about how rest helps you be more creative. And I thought it was interesting how you tackle the idea of, well, do I start working so that I can feel creative? Or do I wait to feel creative until I start working? And as a writer, this is something that I kind of wrestled with a little bit. So can you can you talk about that idea?
Alex: Sure. You know, I wrestled with it myself. Every person who’s a writer or does anything creative, often starts with the presumption you’ve got to be inspired first, and then you go, and the inspiration kind of provides the fuel that helps you work. And to put it simply, that’s backwards. Or rather that you’ll get better results if you kind of flip the script. When you look at the working routines of creative people, one of the things that you find is that they’re actually kind of boring. People tend to, you know, be at their desk at the same time, every day, they work for X number of hours, usually far fewer hours than we expect. And then they’re done. And part of what happens, part of the reason that that turns out to be useful is not just that there’s plenty of knowledge work that, once you’ve learned to do, it, is kind of like craft, it doesn’t require super deep thinking necessarily. But it’s also the case more often that inspiration follows work, rather than sort of drives work. So Stephen King talks about this, and, you know, talk about someone who’s incredibly prolific, right? He compares creativity to this, like, stubborn maintenance guy, who possesses like the magic fairy dust that will help you have really good ideas. And they’re willing, somewhat reluctantly, to share it. But only after you started working. I think Picasso has a line that inspiration exists, but it has to find you working first. And so I think the takeaway from this is that you are more likely to have good results if you design your days so that you’d have to set aside periods for sort of deep focused work periods for rest and recovery, for deliberate rest. And that by doing that, you’re more likely to construct a daily rhythm in which the muse actually shows up, and in which you get inspired.
Sonya: Now, this also kind of reminds me in cognitive behavioral therapy, there’s something that’s called behavioral activation, which essentially says that, instead of waiting for the emotion to strike to do the thing, you have to get started to get going. So basically, your motivation will follow your action. So a lot of times people will say, and I mean, behavioral activation is used more for like the people with depression, but in for like, you know, the lay person, it’s like, well, I don’t feel like exercising, I’m going to wait until I feel motivated to exercise. Where a lot of times, you just have to go for one minute, or you just have to get started and then you actually get motivated. Or like, I’m not going to eat healthy, like I don’t want to eat healthy, I don’t want to eat a salad. Well just start eating the salad and then you actually might realize, well, this is actually pretty good. And so that sounds like it’s the same thing in terms of creativity.
Alex: That’s an excellent comparison. And I think actually, that there is, there is a lot that we can apply in improving our creative lives that we can learn from things like that… I’ve been struck at how the advice of sort of really farsighted coaches and trainers turns out to apply well to sort of managing creative lives, you know. Just about everybody recognizes the importance now of rest days and training. And the idea that, you know, you don’t build muscle while you’re working out, you build muscle while you’re sleeping. But of course, you know, you need to work out first. And I think that sort of creative development turns out to follow a similar kind of rhythm. There is a lot to be learned by adapting patterns and practices like that, from our lives as athletes or our lives as people who are trying to improve other parts or improve other things and thinking and seeing how they can apply in our creative and professional lives as well.
Sonya: Yeah, something that I have to remind myself all the time is the rest is part of the work and that goes for creative work, that goes for physical work, because without the rest you can’t have these look for physical work without rest you don’t allow yourself to have adaptations. And the same thing goes for what you’re talking about here with this deliberate rest of in order to have “adaptations of the mind and have ideas” you need to have this deliberate rest away from that to make that happen as well. So talking about work you’re talking about for a four day work week, like how many hours a day should we be working in does that vary depending on what industry the individual is in or even what their goals are?
Alex: You know, okay, so for work that requires any kind of judgment, creativity, empathy, etc., the ideal would be four or five hours or per day. I think that the, if you’re thinking in terms of how much do people need to work in order to get the psychological benefits of work, right? The exposure to other people, the sense of meaning that comes from sort of doing good work. There’s a sociologist at Cambridge who’s been studying this, and finds that after about eight or 10 hours working per week, we max out on those benefits. So, you know, in an ideal world, we would be, and in the kinds of worlds that successful creative people are able to design for themselves when they have like, the freedom, the money, those people tend to work, like four or five really intensive hours per day and then that’s pretty much it. You know, I’m not talking about your ordinary garden variety, like a person who thinks that they’re creative. I’m talking about like, Ludwig von Beethoven, or Charles Darwin, you know, people whose accomplishments are absolutely undeniable, right? These aren’t creative wannabes. And so, you know, the move to four day weeks, is, one hopes ideally, the first step towards a work week that maybe is even shorter. But importantly, right now, is one that recognizes the importance not just of trying to solve these kinds of problems, or work more rest into our daily lives by ourselves, but demonstrates that this can be really, really powerful if we do it together, if we act collectively. And that there are benefits not just for individuals, but for organizations and for teams and for society, as well. And so that’s why I’ve been sort of focused on what a four day week stuff, working on that for sort of the last couple years kind of building on the work of rest, but showing how it can apply at the organizational level, and how companies can harness it in order to be better places to work and to do better work.
Sonya: So at the organizational level, how many hours a day are these businesses mandating for a four day work week? Like, because I think a lot of these, a lot of people are overachievers, or pushers, and they’re like, okay, I’m going to work four days. So I’m going to work four 12-hour days so that I can take Friday off.
Alex: So companies, companies that are moving to four day weeks are actually reducing the number of hours that people are working. And so it’s not going to four 10 hour days, but rather four eight hour days, right, genuine so this is this is genuine work time reduction. As for that question of right, what do you do with people who are super dedicated, ambitious, they really like their work? Shouldn’t you just let them work? 12 hour days? It’s a bit like asking, or Steve Kerr, you know, Steph Curry really loves to play, so shouldn’t you let him play, you know, all four quarters of every single game? Well, the answer turns out to be no, because Kerr has to be strategic about or have you know about when Curry and everybody else plays. And indeed that, you know, having your players out there like, eventually playing at 80% versus being more strategic about how you deploy them, more strategic about their playing time, and having the play at a really high level, yields better results, both for the team and for individuals. And I think that, you know, in far too many workplaces, the assumption has been that a good manager is someone who was able to get everybody working at 100% all the time, or at least puts everyone out on the field 100% of the time. And I think one of the things you do when you move to a four day week, is you have to start thinking a little more strategically about when people work at their best, when teams work at their best, and start to kind of design your days, a little more thoughtfully, so that you don’t have to put everybody out on the field for all four quarters.
Sonya: Yeah, like if you have less time to get a project done, you actually can become more efficient. And I personally had this experience because, well, a lot of people had this experience with the pandemic in some ways. I also think, though, with the pandemic that people might have overworked, but if you have less time to get stuff done, like if you have kids around or you know, more demands that you can’t spend on the actual project work that you’re doing, it turns out that, at least for me, personally, I was able to still do the same amount of work in less time because I just had less time to do it. So therefore I wasted less time.
Alex: Yeah, you know, one of the things that people who study what have distraction in the workplace, have concluded is that the average knowledge worker loses two to three hours per day to overly long meetings, to distracting technologies, or to interruptions that take a while to recover from. What that means is that, in a sense, the four day week is already here, it’s just buried underneath these bad practices. And so if you can just eliminate those get a handle on that stuff, you go a long way to being able to do five days worth of work in four days. I think the second important thing from your example is that there are plenty of people who had to figure this out. In lots of the companies that moved to four day weeks, they do so when, after they’ve had a few people who have moved to four days, and realized that they’re actually just as productive as they were when they were working five day weeks. And almost always these are working moms who have to be more ruthless about their time, or they’re better at setting boundaries at focusing and getting stuff done, and then moving on to the next thing, because their time is, you know, their time is precious. And their example turns out to offer a lot of lessons to all of us about how we can more thoughtfully design our time, so that we can get done in fewer hours, the things we need to do, we can prioritize, we can choose the important tasks, and you know, and disregard the unimportant ones. So, you know, I think that there are that the four day week, sometimes at first blush looks like something that is either like this idealistic the pipe dream or is impossible, right? How can I possibly get everything done in four days, or I’m struggling to get it done in, you know, in six? But in reality, there are probably within your own organization, people who already are working in ways that show that it’s possible, and are doing things that are scalable, throughout your teams, throughout your companies.
Sonya: Have you run into issues working with some organizations where they did switch to a four day week, and then it just wasn’t really working for them?
Alex: I think that there are challenges with companies that are doing it where the work is highly cyclical, or seasonal. So if you’re in construction, for example, and 90% of your work happens in the spring and summer, then you don’t necessarily have a lot of play in your schedules to adopt a four day week. I think that the few places that have tried and have moved away from them have done so mainly because of macroeconomic pressures. So there was one or stand up paddleboard company, for example, that have moved actually to a five hour day and had done very well until Amazon came along and started selling stand up paddleboards. And, as you might expect, that had a big impact on their business. Or a startup gets a round of venture capital funding and the VCs say we love what you’re doing, but we need to see people sleeping under their desks. So, you know, we’ll give you 20 million, but no more four day week. There are not many places in which it actually doesn’t work. I suspect there probably are more of them than I know about. But you know, one of the things about companies is that they’re a lot more willing to talk about their successes and their failures. So I don’t have as many good stories of companies where it hasn’t worked as I have for companies where it has. So our knowledge of why they fail is not as robust as I would like.
Sonya: I worked for this company a long time ago. So my previous life, I have my master’s degree in electrical engineering, and I was working for this government laboratory. And they proposed something that was called the 980. So you would take every other Friday off, but you would be working nine hours a day instead of eight hours a day.
Alex: Yeah, I know there are a few government offices that do that. I think that the the 980 or the nine day fortnight as its sometimes called is I think that there are people who really like it. I think the the and it really comes down to number one, can you be reasonably productive during those nine hours? So one of the things we see is a lot of work, productivity really starts to drop off from about our six or so. So hours eight and nine you might not be able to get very much done depending on the work you’re doing. And then whether you basically, do you like a three day weekend more than you dislike nine hour days. And depending upon where…and that’s a very subjective thing. But I think it is something that it’s another thing that we’re seeing sort of more places experimenting with. And in some cases, it turns out to be the kind of gateway drug to a four day week, right, discovering that you can do this, that you can play around with your schedules, becomes the first step towards actually going from a Friday off every other week to a Friday off every week.
Sonya: Yeah, there’s so much to talk about here. And it takes confidence to step off the treadmill and to give it a try to see how you perform or how your organization will perform if you’re implementing these, these structural changes. But yeah, I say, for me, personally, it has made a difference in my life, I’d say in the last five years to have the courage to say I’m not going to work myself to death, because that’s my tendency and to be aware of that. And then to say, well, how is this impacting me? How is this impacting my my ability to create things or to be productive? And how is it impacting my well being. I think the well-being conversation is something that is often not included when it comes to productivity or workplace practices. And if you have that stronger foundation of well being, you can be more productive and creative in your work life.
Alex: Yes, and I think that we have all recognized this as an ideal, but I think now more than ever, between sort of the experience that many of us have had during the pandemic, but one of the examples of companies moving to four day weeks, it’s clear that there are feasible alternatives to constant overwork, to are thinking of our careers as a kind of race against obsolescence and burnout. And that we have lots of examples of people in organizations that are managed to construct schedules and routines and business models that are far more sustainable, that allow people to do what they love for a very long time, rather than for short, intensive times and that yield better work and better lives and, you know, ultimately, I think, make us better, happier people. So and, you know, what more could we ask for?
Sonya: I think that’s a great place to wrap it up. Where can people find your work?
Alex: So on Twitter, and just about everything else I am AskPang, ask p-a-n-g, and then I do some occasional writing on my website, which is strategy.rest, fortunately, for me rest is a top level domain, so you can find it there. And then the rest of my time is spent a four day week global, which is 4dayweek.com. So that’s where I am.
Sonya: Alright, well, thanks so much for your time and for your expertise. And I’m really excited for people to maybe try out a four day week.
Alex: Oh, yeah, me too. So thanks very much for having me on.