Want to Be More Creative? Try More Rest

At first I thought it was a teacher thing. I would ask how someone was doing and they would say, “I’m really busy.” This was often followed by a description of how little sleep they had gotten and how much grading they had done. Teachers weren’t whining. It wasn’t a “poor me” attitude. It was more of a sense of pride. As teachers, we often wear “busy” like a badge of honor, advertising to the world how out of control our careers have become.

Later I realized that this wasn’t limited to the teaching profession. When I went to family parties and asked how people were doing, the first answer was nearly always, “We’ve been busy. Really busy.” This is usually followed by a description of various scheduled activities. Baseball season is so time-consuming. Homework is so time-consuming. Church is so time-consuming. Everything is time-consuming.

I’m guilty of this as well. I drop the “busy” bomb in a conversation almost as evidence that my life is full. But here’s the odd thing: busy isn’t something to strive for. It isn’t something to be proud of.

When I look back at my life, I don’t want to say, “I was really good at being busy.”

I don’t think it’s wrong to be productive. I don’t think it’s a bad thing when teachers go far beyond their forty hours of teaching. After all, I know of a science teacher who spends hours each week leaving meaningful feedback on student work, setting up cool labs for her students and tending a garden. I’d argue, though, that she’s not busy — because busy is different. Busy is hurried. Busy is overwhelmed. Busy is fast. Busy is so packed you can hardly breathe.

This is why I broke up with busy a few years ago. Here’s the story of how it went down:

At the time, I thought I would have to sacrifice productivity in order to cultivate rest. But here’s what happened: I have been more productive and more creative as a result of “breaking up with busy.”

Why Rest is Vital for Creative Work

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the value of rest. I used to see rest as a luxury that you could attain if you were more efficient with your work. But now I see rest as a vital part of the creative experience, as a discipline you cultivate in order to be more productive.

I noticed this when reading Tools of Titans. The highest performers in just about every industry were often unhurried and unrushed. They were the ones who took naps, went on walks, exercise, and engaged in creative hobbies (or “deep play”) in their spare time. I noticed a similar trend when reading Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Some of the most innovative people around are the ones who rest. Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens both went on long walks. Some of the greatest inventors and engineers in our world take regular naps.

Neuroscientists continue to confirm the same central idea. If you want to be more creative and more productive, you need to cultivate rest.

Seven Ways to Incorporate Rest into Your Life

We know that rest is a vital part of the creative life but how do we move beyond seeing it as a mere luxury? How do we carve out spaces for restorative rest? Here are a few ideas of where to start:

#1: Work Fewer Hours

There was an interesting study of scientists in the 1950’s cited in Rest. They compared the number of hours science professors spent in their office and compared that to the number of articles they produced in a year. To their surprise, it wasn’t linear at all. There was a steep incline between ten to twenty hours per week but then the results plummeted. The professors who worked 35-40 hours per week were half as productive as those who worked twenty hours.

This is a common trend throughout industries. Musicians and athletes who practice more than four hours per day are actually less productive. And some of the best artists, engineers, and writers stick to a four hour work day.

This isn’t always possible, especially for teachers. But this does suggest that there is a downside to being “on” at all times. We actually need spaces of mental slack, where we can zone out and daydream.

#2: Take Naps (Or What Would Dean Shareski Do?)

In the midst of the most harrowing days of World War II, Winston Churchill would take a long bath and then a nap. What’s interesting is just how common that is with certain high-profile leaders. Some of the best presidents took naps on a regular basis. Some of the best problem-solvers do the same thing.

But it turns out that a nap isn’t “down time” at all. It’s actually a period where your brain is able to process and reflect and plan. There’s some fascinating research going on the power of naps, ranging from increasing alertness to making better moral decisions to reducing cognitive load to processing complex information.

#3: Go for a Walk

One of the strategies I’ve used for years is going for long walks when I’m stuck. I remember thinking that this was some kind of profound life hack that I had stumbled upon. But then I read about how Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens both used long walks as a way to make sense out of complex ideas. Think that’s crazy in a world of social media? There’s a great contemporary example. Lin Manuel-Miranda wrote the lyrics of Hamilton while taking his dog for a walk each day.

Researchers have actually tested this with treadmills. Graduate students who took a break from puzzles and walked on treadmills performed higher on divergent thinking and problem-solving tests than those who continued to work on the same puzzles.

I remember years ago when Michael Doyle would post about going on long walks by the beach and finding clams and thinking about life. I thought it was a luxury — a nice idea but impossible for a busy teacher like me. But as I started incorporating long walks into my days I found that I was able to reach a level of clarity that doesn’t happen when you’re tapping away at a computer. Mentally, it feels like getting out of a traffic jam and taking things off-road. I’m able to regain my perspective and work on things in a more relaxed way.

#4: Ditch Perfectionism

I often feel guilty for working fewer hours. I have moments where I wonder if I’m going to be “found out” as someone who works no more than 40 hours per week. But I’m beginning to discover that there are things that require 100% and things that require 10%. It’s okay to pick and choose where you will do your best work.

A few days ago, I led a book discussion on Rest. When I asked fellow faculty members what types of barriers get in the way of rest, they said things like, “Fear of letting people down” or “the drive to make sure things are perfect.” But if we want to be more creative and more productive, we need to decipher between the urgent and the important and we need to figure out when something is “good enough.”

#5: Stop When It’s Working

I remember hearing about this strategy from a biography on Hemmingway. The idea is that you finish your work half-way and then come back to it later. In other words, an author will stop mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. This is because the hardest part of creative work involves getting started. We often move to Facebook or Twitter because we are avoiding getting started. Starting in mid-sentence keeps us away from this trap.

But there’s another benefit to this strategy. When we stop in the middle of deep work, we can spend time resting and reworking bits and pieces of that work while we are engaged in play or in long walks or in exercise. Then, when we come back with a fresh set of eyes, we are able to continue the work we started without worrying about the starting point. This allows for an incubation period where great ideas can percolate for hours.

#6: Embrace Boredom

Think back to your most ingenious idea you had in the last year. Chances are it happened at a boring moment. You were taking a shower or stuck in traffic or waiting in line somewhere. These moments of boredom can be annoying but they’re also a part of the restful state that leads to divergent thinking.

Awhile back, I wrote about why boredom can make you more creative. It feels counterintuitive because boredom sucks. As teachers, we work hard to make sure lessons aren’t boring. We live in a culture with instant information and constant entertainment. However, boredom can actually be a gift. It can be the very thing you need in order to think differently and generate new ideas. 

#7: Make Deep Play a Priority

Play isn’t just a valuable thing for kids. It’s actually something that can make us more creative. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang shares four characteristics of deep play:

  1. Deep play is mentally absorbing.
  2. Deep play offers a new context to use some of the same skills as their work.
  3. Deep play offers clearer rewards and more user agency than traditional work.
  4. Deep play provides a connection to the player’s past.

This is why I write novels, sketch pictures, and just recently started designing baseball stadiums in Minecraft. True, these are also activities I can do with my kids. But they are low-pressure and high reward spaces where I can play around with creative ideas. And I’d argue that they have surprising benefits. Writing a novel has helped me think of the relationship between lesson-planning and storycraft. Playing on Minecraft has helped me see iterative thinking in action. Playing chess has made me a better systems thinker. And it turns out that the mediocre doodling I do has become a surprising skill for making videos and presentations. But it all started with play.

But How Do You Actually Do This?

Some of these ideas feel unrealistic. After all, a teacher works a demanding, emotionally draining job for at least eight hours a day. However, I incorporated many of these ideas into my daily schedule as a classroom teacher and I always had time to write books, do research, read, and make stuff. So, here are a few things that worked for me.

  • Get up early. I’ve always woken up no later than 5 a.m. and spent the first two hours of my day doing focused creative work. Want to write a novel? Try writing 500 words a day. Want to make a video? Try spending an hour on it each day.
  • Walk more. I used to spend ten to fifteen minutes on my prep period walking. It was a chance to have uninterrupted mental slack to let my mind wander. Inevitably, I would have a creative breakthrough right when I arrived back in my classroom. I would also feel more refreshed and I would knock out a ton of work in the next twenty minutes of my prep period.
  • Prioritize your work. Learn how to cut corners on things that don’t matter. Allow students to set up your bulletin boards. Do more self-assessment, peer feedback, and one-on-one student conferencing. In other words, grade as you go, in the moment, while you are teaching.
  • Find a creative outlet outside of teaching. As a classroom teacher, I had one night a week that I treated as my Genius Hour. I spent those hours writing fiction. It was my “deep play” time each week and I’m convinced it kept me from burnout.
  • Treat summers like sabbaticals. It’s great to go to conferences and read some teacher books. However, the summer is also a chance to go on long walks and engage in a creative project.
  • Be intentional. To the outside, it might feel like I am “always on social media,” but I’ve always had planned social media breaks in moments when I want to be intentional about social relationships. I don’t zone out and scroll.

There is no magic formula that will give you more hours in a day. There are no hacks that will make your work hyper-efficient. However, it’s possible to rethink your schedule to make rest a priority. When this happens, you’re actually more productive.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

4 responses

  1. Mr. Spencer,

    I enjoyed reading your blog about restorative rest to increase educators efficiency. I think you have made very important points. Perhaps incorporating walking and “deep play” into certain aspects of the educational environment can help teachers and students improve their rest and creativity.

    The high school I currently work for recently implemented numerous enrichment programs. During this time (one out of every eight school days) students have a designated time to expand their learning. Some students take advantage of “deep play” such as Minecraft and coding, while others investigate the advantages of mindfulness. Do you believe every school should have similar opportunities? What should be the parameters of restorative rest in schools?

    Thanks,

    Rebecca V.

    1. That sounds awesome!

  2. I would often sing the Offspring lyrics “The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care” under my breath when I Iistened to other teachers talking about staying up late to grade quizzes.
    It doesn’t help anyone when teachers exhaust themselves.
    Lunch with colleagues was one of my most important rests. Nothing quite beats time spent with adults, even if it is only 20 minutes.

  3. Wow, I totally agree. Teaching 17 years and it took me that long to realize I wasn’t helping my students or self being a workaholic. Now during the last year up at the gym at 5:00 am daily and leave at reasonable time which is hard. Did not work last summer took a drive and saw places always wanted to see in So Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and California….Adventure with photo journal so relaxed at beginning of year.

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