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Daragh Byrne
Daragh Byrne

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The magical powers of REST

Software development is demanding sometimes.

There are endless tasks to get done. Often they have deadlines attached. Usually, there are people who will be happy or sad depending on the outcome of the task.

Work takes up a huge part of our lives, and can be a source of joy and meaning.

But it can be draining.

(first published on

There is often the sense of falling behind – that the to-do list will remain endless, forever.

It can be tempting to solve this by “doing more” – putting in extra hours, working weekends and so on. I’ve fallen victim to this temptation myself.

But over the years I’ve had a hunch that I’m actually more effective if I do less. I’ve experimented with my working routines, the amount of rest and exercise I get and so on.

I have some personal evidence that I’m at my best when well-rested.

(you might have worked out by now I'm not talking about REST with respect to HTTP APIs...)

It’s counterintuitive, but taking the foot off the gas every so often can actually lead you to be more effective when you are actually working.

And finally, I’ve found a book that makes the argument better than I ever could.

Rest – why you get more done when you work less by Alex Soojun-Kim Pang.

Rest is a survey of creative, productive and influential humans throughout history.

Think Jefferson, Dickens, Churchill, Scott Adams – people whose impact and output have been significant.

It’s a treasure trove of “life-hacks” of these characters.

The author analyses the working lives of these men and women. He proposes a list of things they mostly had in common when approaching their working lives

  • Four hours of creative work – many influential, productive figures organised their day so that the greatest body of their creative work occupied about four hours. For example, the author J.G. Ballard described his routine as “two hours in the late morning, two in the early afternoon followed by a walk along the river”. You might think that four hours doesn’t sound like a lot, but (a) it applies to the creative side of work (b) if you examine your own day honestly, you might find that you only actually do around this amount in any event (it’s often true for me).
  • Morning routine – this is the section of the argument that I had most trouble with. The book says that these figures often had a well-established morning routine. For example, Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) would often get straight to work at 5am after a coffee. And many other creators would get to work at a particular time. Which I think is the real argument here – pick a time, and work at that time. For me, I’m aware that my energy cycle allows for better output between 10am and 12pm, and again between 4pm and 6pm, so I try to schedule around that for programming work in particular.
  • Walk – the author outlines a fair bit of scientific evidence that walking stimulates creativity. He quotes the philosopher Keirkegaard, who said “I have walked myself into my best thoughts” – something that tallies with my personal experience.
  • Nap – napping is one of my life skills. I’ve trained my body to be able to rest for 20 minutes and wake again, through practice. It’s been a game changer for those times when I’m all out of energy. This chapter continues in the vein of the previous one, in detailing examples from history and scientific evidence. Winston Churchill kept a bed in 10 Downing Street during the war, and used it to nap every day!
  • Stop – there is strong evidence that mind wandering – just sitting and thinking about nothing in particular, giving your mind free rein to go where it wants – is conducive to productivity and creativity. Athletes and concert pianists alike know the value of knowing when to stop (typically around the time your mind is telling you to push through). Of course, if you do find it hard to sit with your own thoughts, there is always meditation
  • Sleep – so much has been written about sleep and this book just re-emphasises it.

Why it's hard to rest

The cultural context that we all operate in can make it difficult to accept the necessity of rest.

We’re so hard-wired to believe that there’s a linear relationship between “quantity of work” and output that it can be hard to accept that the relationship might be non-linear. The idea of rest has, sadly, become counter-intuitive.

How about you? What’s your take on this? How does rest show up in your life? Could you do more? Less? What impact does it have? I’d love to hear more in the comments.

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