Dr. Alex Pang: Getting more done by working less

From Sunday Morning, 10:04 am on 1 September 2019

A six-hour working day and four day working week would be a better way to get more work done, says an advocate of the method.

Dr Alex Pang has written three books dedicated to how people should be working in order to achieve more.

He’s also founder of The Restful Company, a consultancy devoted to helping people and organisations use deliberate rest to become more focused, productive and happier. His new book is called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

Dr Alex Pang

Dr Alex Pang Photo: supplied

His philosophy is inspired by his own personal experience when he was working on sabbatical Microsoft research.

“I had this epiphany that I was doing all this great work and having great ideas but I didn’t feel the constant time pressure and stress that is just part of background life in Silicon Valley and so many other places.

“It got me thinking, maybe our assumptions that doing good work requires constant never-ending labour is actually backwards, and that we should think … about the ways that rest and leisure can both restore capacity for work but also provide opportunities for creative insight and those ‘aha!’ moments.”

Even renowned intellectuals, like Darwin, wouldn’t have spent 40 hours a week creating their masterpieces, he says.

“While for him, his hours were a choice, he’s still a good illustration of how people are able to do great work even while living lives that seem to us admirably leisurely, and full of good habits and hobbies.”

Although Darwin would only spend about four hours a day on his work, he worked intensively with zero interruptions in that period, Dr Pang says. And the same could be applied to today’s world for those wanting to reduce their work time.

“If you think about how much of your day can be spent responding to emails or interruptions or people have just one question, and how long it takes to get back into a focused mode. I think we can all appreciate that having several unbroken hours of the day, you can actually get an awful lot done.

Team succes. Photo young business crew working with new startup project. Notebook on wood table.  Analyze plans hands, keyboard.

Photo: 123rf

“It’s a remarkable story, but Darwin is far from the only one who was like this.

“You can see writers, scientists, composers, mathematicians, who follow this kind of pattern of working very intensively but also balancing those periods with what I call periods of deliberate rest to help them recharge their batteries, but also to give their mind time to turn over ideas, unfinished problems, that have alluded their conscious effort.”

Balancing out work with rest is crucial to recuperate and recharge yourself to work better. But it’s equally important to keep it simple and not let it become another source of stress by worrying about how it’ll fit into your schedule, Dr Pang says.

“If you, in a sense, take it too seriously, it stops being useful. Treating [rest] not as a sacrifice or something that competes with work or with family, but as something that enables and strengthens those things.

“Most people like Darwin, like Churchill, only learn to take rest seriously after some personal crisis, after burning out or a breakdown, so even incredibly smart people learn this stuff the hard way. You’ve kind of gotta be stupid about rest before you can be smart about it.”

The activities or hobbies that are engaging or mentally and physically challenging tend to better for recharging.

But getting into the habit of taking rests and working with no interruptions, in the way that Dr Pang has defined, can be troublesome for some workers who are tied to constant time pressures.

“I think that many of us have more control over our time than we realise. In a sense that a certain amount of our day is taken up with self-distraction, things like social media or checking our phones.

“On the other hand, it genuinely is the case that there are these bigger structures that need to be changed in order for us to do it really effectively.”

Some people might consider that idling on phones and scouring over social media to be forms of rest, but our brains tend to treat it like work, Dr Pang says.

“We’re making the same kinds of calculations about status and what people really mean and so on – something that we often do when we’re in meetings or working with others.”

Dr Pang is also a believer in power naps and day dreaming to allow the brain to recover and recharge from work.

Worker looking outside office window, thinking. (File photo)

Photo: 123RF

“A good nap, at least during the work day, is one where you can wake up quickly and be back at work. They are more effective in helping us to stay alert and focused than having one more cappuccino in the middle of the day.

“Daydreaming and mind-wandering is a great example of one of these things that looks unproductive but is actually super valuable and super creative, and it’s something we can learn, not exactly to command, but to harness a little bit better in our work and daily lives.”

Companies that have transferred over to four-day weeks have cut down on meetings and so-called distractions, enabling workers to have intensive focused periods balanced with rest activities, he says.

“Another thing is that they defragment the day so that they will set aside times of day for really intensive focused work, no-one has to answer the phone, or deal with emails, or ask people those one quick questions that turn into a 10-minute interruption.

“They do encourage practices during the day that enable a greater degree of focus, the other thing that does is allow people to build up better work-life boundaries. We tend to think that breaking down the boundaries between work life and home life is a natural and inevitable thing now, thanks to technology, but it’s not.

“Companies talk about colleagues having deeper friendships after implementing things like lunch hour, but also still being able to get them all the work they had previously.”

He says he’s hopeful these will companies offer a more sustained kind of model for work without the risk of burnout.

“They’re important exemplars that show us the way that things are now are not the way they have to be in the future.”