Who wouldn’t want to go home at noon. Or take every Friday off? Sure, working less sounds great in theory. But who can actually work that way? We’re all too busy. Our days are filled with work—important work. We wear those 10+ hours days as a badge of honor.
For the past 15 years, Silicon Valley futurist, consultant, and author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang has been obsessed with doing more in less time. And no, we’re not talking about productivity hacks. But the science and secrets of how some of the most creative, innovative, and revolutionary thinkers have managed to create incredible bodies of work, all while spending less time “working”.
In his book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Pang explored the role downtime plays in the lives of some of the most productive people.
Now, Pang’s turned his focus on the workplace. If individual creators like Charles Darwin, Stephen King, and Maya Angelou can become prolific creators while only “working” a few hours a day. Why can’t companies get similar results following suit?
In this interview, we spoke with Pang about how to do more in less time, find work life balance, and the productive power of time off.
Setting the stage: How culture, silicon valley, and technology have made overwork the norm
To understand why we need to change our approach to work, we need to understand how we got into this overworking mess in the first place.
As Pang explains, overwork has been around since the concept of labor for wages was invented. However, it’s only been relatively recently that overwork has become a cultural phenomenon.
“The way we see success today has completely overturned the old model of working up the corporate ladder—of waiting your turn,” he explains.
“Back in the 1950s the CEOs of both General Motors and General Electric—two of the biggest companies in the US—were guys named Charlie Wilson. They both had long careers at their respective companies with one starting on the factory floor while the other was a mail boy.
“Now compare that to the path of someone like Mark Zuckerberg. The billionaire college dropout legendary for working insanely long hours. To many people, that’s what success looks like now.”
Along with a cultural shift in our relationship to workplaces, Pang explains that other forces have combined to create a perfect storm of overwork.
- It’s harder than ever to stay relevant and at the top of your game: A sense of urgency has invaded our lives. Markets change rapidly. There’s not much security. And the goal is to become rich and successful before the market takes a downturn or your technical skills become obsolete.
- We carry our offices around in our pockets: There’s no longer opportunities for full escapes from work. Instead, we’re always on. Checking email and Slack throughout the day and often into the night. Instead of our work happening in discrete chunks it’s been ground into a fine powder and spread throughout our days.
- The results of our work are harder to judge: With the rise of knowledge work, it’s harder to finish the day and show tangible results. Our work is fuzzy and less specific, which leads us to be more performative in how we work. If you can’t show a finished statue at the end of the workday, then you at least want someone to see that you worked on it for 12 hours straight.
- For women especially, long hours help break stereotypes: Pang explains that one of the more under-appreciated aspects of overwork is how it’s perceived differently based on gender. In a number of studies, women were found to be more likely to be penalized for taking approved flex time compared to their male colleagues (as the assumption is that they’re putting family over the job). Overwork becomes a way to counteract that.
- We feel like we have to work long hours: It’s not just external factors that push us to overwork. For many people, we’ve internalized these triggers and justified them. We think we’ll learn more and get ahead if we work more intensely. So even when given the opportunity to take time off, we don’t.
Talking to Pang, it almost sounds as if overwork has invaded every level of our hierarchy of needs.
The modern workplace is less secure, so our safety is threatened if we don’t work as much as others. Our sense of belonging is tied to work, so we keep it in our pockets and never leave. Our self-esteem is driven by short-term success and visions of startup billions. And our motivation and purpose get tied up in what our job title is.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. And as Pang explains, many of the people who are the most productive, happy, healthy, and balanced, do less.
The qualities of people who prioritize rest
If working more isn’t the answer, then how do you take your foot off the accelerator?
First, Pang says you need to understand and accept that working more to get more done is an unsustainable strategy. There are only 24 hours in a day. And eventually you have to logically realize that it’s impossible to solve problems by working more.
“Everyone I talk about in the book discovers the value of what I call ‘deliberate rest’ the hard way. They have some kind of crisis. They burn out. They’re one step away from a nervous breakdown when they realize that way they’ve been working no longer works for them.”
This idea of ‘Deliberate rest’ is the second, and arguably more important part.
Rather than work hard for long days and then retreat to passive activities (like binge-watching shows or scrolling through social media feeds). A more effective strategy is to use your downtime doing tasks that feel unproductive and restful, yet allow you to work over a problem subconsciously.
Our brains don’t stop working when we leave a task. When we daydream or let our minds wander, they subconsciously continue to look for connections and insights. In creativity theory this is called “incubation.” And it explains why so many Eureka! moments happen when you least expect them (like being in the shower).
“What most people discover is that work and rest aren’t competitors. They’re partners. You need each one in order to have a good, sustainable life. When you rest properly, you’re giving your creative subconscious a chance to work on problems, to make associations, to see insights that might elude your own conscious self.”
Think of it like the training schedule of a top athlete like Usain Bolt.
Rather than spend all his time training his legs and sprinting, he spends equal time focusing on each individual aspect, from his stride to his arms to how to breathe properly. Few people would say you need to practice breathing. Yet it’s the differentiator between a great runner and a world record holder.
What a proper daily schedule balancing work and rest actually looks like
The same can be said for rest. Learning to use your downtime in a way that’s both restorative and productive isn’t easy. But it can be done. In his book, Rest, Pang broke down the daily patterns of everyone from successful artists to scientists and found a similar schedule.
For people who have high levels of control over how and when they work, most would work really intensively for 4–5 hours and then spend an almost equal amount of time on deliberate rest.
“These are writers, scientists, and mathematicians who work on really hard problems. And what you see is that they’ll work in the morning, have a quick lunch, and then go out for a walk for one or two hours. It turns out that during the walk, they’re continuing to gently think about the problems they’d been working on.”
“By loading the ideas into their short-term memory and then going to do something else, they’re effectively handing the problem over to their subconscious mind to play around with it in ways your conscious mind can’t.”
For people with less control over their days—like executives or doctors—deliberate rest needs to be slightly different. According to Pang, these people are especially good at protecting their downtime. Whether that means taking long vacations without technology or using weekends to engage in activities that are enjoyable but also mentally and physically challenging.
The key is to look for activities that are engaging (so they compete with work for your time) and can be completable in a discrete amount of time (so you feel compelled to finish them).
“You know you’re very busy. And so if you can make it to the top of the mountain in 24 hours, then you’re more likely to fit that into your schedule than something that is much more open ended and uncertain.”
How (and why) to work a 4-day workweek
Rest is a powerful tool for anyone. But while individuals from a wide spectrum of professions were using it, Pang started to wonder if the same results could be seen on a company-wide scale.
What he discovered was a whole slew of companies who had switched to a four-day workweek or a six-hour workweek and were succeeding. And they were doing so by using many of the same strategies as individuals practicing deliberate rest. Here’s how:
Step 1: Understand that downtime isn’t a cost, but an investment
It can be hard for any leader to think about slashing working hours. It often feels like you’re barely holding on as it is. And the idea of having less time each week seems counter to growth.
But the companies Pang spoke with all switched their perspective around downtime from a privilege to a necessity.
“These companies started to see downtime as a sort of hedge against burnout and all of the attendant problems that come with it.”
As individuals, burnout and overwork can seriously impact both our mental and physical health. And on a company level it leads to absenteeism, less motivation, and higher levels of cynicism and detachment.
Instead of thinking about the hours they were losing, these companies focused on what they were gaining: happier, healthier, and more invested employees.
Step 2: Give workers the permission to say no
Our days are filled with meaningless tasks. Update meetings. Never-ending email chains or Slack conversations. Busy work that doesn’t really have to be done.
And in most cultures, there’s a hierarchy that doesn’t let workers say no to work that’s been placed on them.
“Most of these places eliminate the regular Monday hour-long meeting or ones that are just about status updates. They get super pointed and even ruthless about agendas and making sure if you do need to meet, you know,what’s going to be talked about and can come prepared.”
By allowing your team to say no to less important work, you not only keep people focused and productive, but also foster a culture of respect, resilience, and understanding.
Step 3: Redesign the workday around focus
When it comes down to the specifics of cutting hours, Pang saw different approaches. However, whether a company was cutting a few hours a day or a day a week, they all followed a similar pattern in how they structured the time they were working.
This meant redesigning the workday to support and sustain focus by having a chunk of 3–4 hours set aside for their most important work. No meetings. And no expectation to check emails or calls.
“Two hours where you can really get into the problem yields solutions that are going to be better than if you spent 10 hours broken up by meetings and bouncing around on Slack channels.”
Step 4: Promote a culture of autonomy and trust
Shorter working hours don’t work for everyone. But the people that are able to thrive in them do so because they do the work they’re trusted to do.
In a world that’s driven to work more, trusting someone to do the same in less time can be a huge motivating factor. And, as Pang explains, this can have further reaching benefits than just more work and time off:
“Shorter hours serve as a kind of forcing function in making you redesign your workday so time is more effectively spent. They encourage new social and cultural workplace norms that allow people greater degrees of autonomy and control in exchange for working more productively.
For the right people, that creates higher levels of resilience and satisfaction that I think translates into better work in the short run and better careers in the long run.”
This only works if that trust and autonomy is in place and respected, both by workers and managers. This means no additional KPIs or metrics to track, but simply making sure that business continues as usual.
“You don’t need any fancy new software or project management tools. All you need is to take a reflective, experimental attitude towards shortening your working time and constantly iterate to find what works.”
Step 5: Focus on good leadership and winning back time every day
But just like tips on exercise and healthy eating are easy to read and hard to act on, putting these techniques into practice is difficult, yet not impossible. It simply takes good leadership and a culture that understands what eats into doing good work.
“If you’re mindful about how your day is organized, take control of email and Slack channels, and are given permission to only answer phone calls or messages at discrete times, rather than be continually interrupted, you can win that time back.
“Rather than ask people to do more. Redesigning the workday so they can take back the time they already have is a much better strategy.”
Shorter working hours can work for everyone: You, your company, and even your clients
There’s a common saying that pops up whenever you talk about working too much: No one gets to their deathbed and wishes they had worked more.
Finding balance in your life, working less, and practicing restorative rest are just some of the ways we can earn back the time that’s taken away from us. Working less isn’t a sign of laziness. It’s a sign of effectiveness. And, as Pang explains, who wouldn’t want that?
“We assume these kinds of changes are going to upset the ecosystem and the relationships that we have with our our clients, but that absolutely does not have to be the case.
“In fact, if you are aware of the costs of overwork and focus on being more thoughtful, deliberate, and reflective way, not only will clients respect that. But you’ll be seen as a place they want to work with.”