Sometimes you’re lucky enough to read a book when you really need it. For me, Rest by Alex Pang was such a book.
See, at the time, I was spinning too many plates. Heavy plates. On the one hand, I did a full-time master’s program where I was head over heels in projects and courses. And at the same time, I’d just discovered writing, for which I sacrificed my entire free time.
If I wasn’t already burnt out, I was ridiculously close.
So I quit my master’s and purely focused on writing. I tried to rest. I moved to Portugal. But my mental health remained a shipwreck I couldn’t patch back together.
I only started to recover when I read this anti-burnout manual. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Pang transformed how I think about work and leisure.
It has helped me work less and get more done.
What’s Rest by Alex Pang About?
In Rest, Alex Pang explains the importance and methods of, well, rest. And yes, this includes lots of familiar advice: morning routines, walking, sleep, exercise, sabbaticals.
But here’s the thing:
We still need to hear this. Our culture romanticizes overwork. We prioritize work over relationships and recovery. A burnout epidemic is rampantly spreading. And worst of all, work has become our core identity.
“If your work is your self, when you cease to work, you cease to exist.”— Alex Pang, Rest
This is why I say: we should consume advice for rest until it seeps into our primitive brain stems.
Rest does this really well. Pang presents the overdone advice in a fresh light with remarkable science. Plus, he adds a few spicy new ideas into the mix I’ve never seen before (and I’ve seen a lot).
Here are these ideas. They’re the three most vital, unique lessons I’ve extracted from the book.
1. Four Hours
We grow up with the notion that “the more work you put in, the more you get out of something.” That’s particularly true if you grew up in Western culture. And so, from childhood on, we imagine productivity as a straight line. More work equals more results.
But what if this advice is flawed? And not just that, but plain-out counterproductive? Here’s what Pang found:
“When you look at history’s most creative figures, you’re immediately confronted with a paradox … Their creativity and productivity … were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest working hours.”
So, how many hours should you spend working daily? The answer is surprisingly plain:
A study shows that scientists who worked 35 hours a week were only half as productive as those working 20 hours a week. The ones who worked 60 hours were the least productive. And it’s not just the scientific evidence. Many of the most prolific creatives figured this out intuitively. Maya Angelou, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway — these people and many more ended their workday after four hours.
Turns out, productivity is not a straight line but more like a bell curve. When we do intense, creative work, our productivity peaks after a few hours and then crashes into the sewers.
What does this mean for you? Here are two takeaways:
- Start your day early and do the work that matters most to you. It doesn’t even need to be four hours. But you need a time frame to immerse yourself in your most vital projects. And for the rest of the day? Don’t worry about the usual chaos of meetings and phone calls. You’ve done your best.
- If you’ve spent more than four hours on intense work, stop forcing it. I know not everyone has the luxury to stop after four hours and kick back on a hammock. But at least try to stop trying. Burnout erupts when we desperately force things to be different than they really are.
To paraphrase Pang, you should organize your life around your work, not your days. Don’t trick yourself into believing that you can conquer the world in 24 hours. Take it slowly. Ideally four hours at a time.
This brings up an important question: What should you do when you’re not working?
2. Deliberate Rest
“If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”— Alex Pang, Rest
One of the lessons that stuck most with me from this book is that rest doesn’t magically come your way. You have to seize it. And maybe even schedule it.
There’s a term for it: Deliberate rest.
It’s a play on the concept of “deliberate practice,” which says that learning a skill should be systematic and challenging rather than drifting with the tides.
The same applies to rest.
Instead of slumping into your couch cushions and distracting yourself with Netflix, deliberate rest is all about engagement. You recharge while being physically or mentally active.
Well, that’s because many of us have the wrong idea of rest. As Pang puts it:
“Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low. The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”
Put differently: Rest is not the absence of work. It’s the augmentation of work. You can’t work without rest, and you can’t rest without work. It’s a yin-and-yang relationship.
In one of my favorite passages, Pang debunks the 10,000-hour rule. This concept, popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, says that you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master any skill.
But this rule is a toxic promise.
Pang noticed a crucial flaw in Gladwell’s theory. He points out that it’s wrong to only look at the time spent working. In fact, it’s far more critical what high performers do when they’re not working.
From this perspective, the rule should be closer to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.
It’s worth pausing on that:
Work only contributes a quarter to the success formula.
But how exactly should you fill your time of deliberate rest? This brings us to my favorite idea of the entire book.
3. Deep Play
Rest is not passive. It’s active. I can’t stress enough how transformative this idea was for me. And deep play is the perfect way to embody that concept.
What is deep play?
“[Deep play describes] activities that are rewarding on their own, but take on additional layers of meaning and personal significance.”— Alex Pang, Rest
The psychological rewards of deep play are similar to work. But we don’t get frustrated by it. We become engaged.
Deep play also explains why highly successful people maintain lifelong hobbies alongside their work. Winston Churchill, for example, spent his off-hours painting (among many other hobbies). Swinging the brush required the same boldness and decisiveness as politics. But in a completely different context. This allowed Churchill to recharge while sharpening his meta-skills.
Ever since I learned about deep play, I’ve intentionally engaged in active rest. Currently, my favorite is hiking. I spend entire days walking, and sleep in a cold tent on rocks, dirt, and grass at night.
This should drain me. But it doesn’t. It fuels me.
Whenever I return from a hiking trip, my mind is clear. I don’t lack sleep. I have more energy than ever — physically and mentally. Pang explains why:
“Because play is voluntary, intrinsically rewarding, mentally and physically engaging, and imaginative, it’s often absorbing and effortless.”
“Voluntary” and “intrinsically rewarding” — that’s important to note. Because it challenges another modern idea: Monetizing your entire life.
We live in a world pushing us to sell our art on Etsy and turn our passion for songwriting into a side hustle. But in reality, we desperately need activities that are rewarding for their own sake.
So, don’t put a price tag on everything you do. Enjoy some activities for their own sake. The rewards of deep play are far more valuable than anything money could buy.
How to Get More Done When You Work Less
The huge takeaway from Rest by Alex Pang is that you can’t stop burnout by taking two weeks off and expecting everything to return to normal. Rest should be an integral part of daily life.
In a nutshell:
- Do less but more intense work.
- Deliberately rest at least as much as you work.
- Deepen your play with challenging yet engaging hobbies.
Of course, these are ideals. And for many people, they’re hard to meet. But even if all we do is feel less guilty when we rest, that’s a massive step in the right direction. Away from burnout. Toward more balance.