Darwin and Dickens Will Change the Way You Work
Learn the secrets from the OGs
Ever heard of the term “Survival of the fittest”?
Best known for his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin gave the foundation of this principle in his theory of natural selection. In his marvelous career, he published 19 books. Everything ranging from a monograph about barnacles to the *Origin of Species, *which is the single most influential book in the history of science — and a foundation for many discoveries to come.
Like many old people, we derive wisdom from the quotes he wrote, one of them being,
“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”
The moment I read this, I bought a poster of Darwin along with his quote.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong in understanding what he meant. You see, two years ago, I was a child of the hustle culture. I considered myself as a part of the hustle cult.
What’s the hustle cult? People who don’t waste even a minute and strive to work an insane number of hours since they know no other way to improve and get ahead.
And I thought that’s what Darwin meant — don’t waste a single hour and keep working. Naive, I know.
My world flipped upside down when I actually saw what Darwin’s schedule looks like:
“If Darwin had been a professor today in had been a professor in a university today,” says Alex Pang in his book Rest, “he would have been denied tenure.” He continues further, “If he’d been working in a company, he would have been fired within a week.”
Darwin is not alone. Many other luminaries follow, in fact. One of the other famous ones is Charles Dickens. He developed a methodical approach to his work, and sit from 9 am to 2 pm, after which he would go on a three-hour walk, the observations from which he’d put straight into his writing.
Layering of Intense Work and Rest
What Pang most distinctly observes about all these luminaries is they structure their lives around their work, but not their days.
They were hard-working, ambitious, and skilled. But they weren’t necessarily working all the time. They’d call it a day after working for almost five hours. And since many would do this early in the morning, they completed their most important work by noon. Some would do it super-early to get to their day jobs — writers with day jobs as a classic example.
So the trend tells us that they arrange their lives to have intense periods of concentration but also “deliberate rest” to recover from that work and improve creativity.
“When we stop and rest properly, we’re not paying a tax on creativity,” Pang writes. “We’re investing in it.”
Dickens for example would see objects around him and build upon them to write stories. Darwin would observe nature around him and let his mind wander to join different ideas together.
That’s what creativity is about — lateral thinking — the ability to amalgamate ideas in a unique combination.
Downtime gives our subconscious mind an opportunity to work on problems that we aren’t able to solve otherwise.
You take a shower and suddenly find the fix to a problem you were stuck on for days. You’re waiting in a queue and suddenly crack the code.
These epiphanies, as we call them, don’t happen when you’re staring at the screen all day. You can have more of these “aha!” moments if you make time for them and let your mind learn to do it systematically.
Basically, we can get a lot of stuff done and recover from it in a way that allows us to boost our creativity.
The Common Mistake
“I wish I could rest a little less”, said no one ever.
It’s unlikely for most of us to take deliberate rest to the extreme. Almost everyone struggles with its paucity rather than plentitude.
The greatest mistake on the path to reorganizing your life then is to not take rest seriously. Treating it as a luxury as opposed to a necessity.
We like to think — “I’ll rest when my work is done.” And I’ve yet to find a day when I can say all my work is done. It just doesn’t happen.
There are always things to get to, projects to start, people to call and emails to write. Even if work is actually done, your mind would find titbits to give you an illusion that it’s not. “Let me just check in with my manager if he likes the draft”, for example.
Rest can quickly fall to the bottom of your list if left unchecked. The only way to take it seriously is to make time for it and put it in your calendar. Period.
Schedule your activity of choice and treat it like any other appointment.
There’ve been days when I tapped my keyboard like a zombie instead of taking a restorative nap. All in the name of ‘working hard’
Logically, it makes sense. If a twenty-minute nap can help you sustain another four hours of work, why wouldn’t you take it? And yet, the over-achiever within us resists.
Appreciate the value of rest, sleep, exercise, naps, walks, and any other hobby you love. By today’s standards, many great men we spoke about above, would’ve been considered total slackers.
This doesn’t only apply to creative professions and knowledge workers — there’s no work that rest cannot improve.
Find Your Deep Play
People who have long, sustainable careers have something outside of work to help them recharge. Without some sort of support or deliberate rest, it isn’t possible to continue the level of hard work it takes to become a master in any field.
Take Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist and a part of Harvard University faculty, for example. She literally has climbs named after her in Colorado.
Winston Churchill wrote a book on painting called Painting as a Pastime. It had nothing to do with his work, yet it had everything to do with his work.
Many scientists, authors, and creative professionals have a hobby that provides similar satisfaction as their work does. This is the main reason which helps them get out of the office as compared to their peers who harm their productivity in the long-run.
What really constitutes rest is also counter-intuitive. What if I told you serving in the military can be a good vacation?
Israeli sociologists Dalia Etzion, Dov Eden, and Yael Lapidot observed workers who went for a year of service in the Israeli military. They had more energy, less stress, and low burnout rates. More importantly, their results were similar to the workers who took a normal vacation where they relaxed on a beach.
The core tenet of deep play is the psychological distance and detachment it provides from your day-to-day lives.
Even a single phone call from someone at work is enough to remind you of all things going on in the office. So if you’re manager tells you to be accessible during your vacation “just-in-case”, realize that you’ll not have as good of a break as you think you will.
In addition to detachment, you also need four other components, according to sociologist Sabine Sonnentag. These are — relaxation, control, and mastery experiences.
Rest particularly in the form of a vacation should help you relax, give you a high degree of control on your schedule, and pursue mastery experiences.
In England’s Bletchley Park during World War II, for example, chess was a popular pastime among the codebreakers…Playing chess remained a recovery experience because it was engrossing and thus relaxing. Plus, the games gave codebreakers an opportunity to exercise mastery. — TED Ideas
I can go on and on about such examples, but the point is this. Rest is not lying on your couch, eating potato chips, and watching Netflix. It’s going to see a new monument in the city, surfing, hiking, playing chess, exercising, and many other activities that are active rather than passive.
For me, meditation, walking, and exercise are the daily activities that help me recharge. And of course, writing is the ultimate mini-vacation that I take every morning and on weekends — it’s relaxing. When I write, I have control over my schedule, can forget about my day job and chase mastery.
Find your one thing and start making time for it today.
To summarize, here’s what you need to do in order to radically change your routine:
Take rest seriously — block time for it in the calendar
Find your deep play activity today and do it in your rest periods
Be unapologetic about taking such breaks. You need them to perform at the highest level.
It’s time to redefine our approach to work. You don’t need to work yourself to death until your eyes bleed.
Life is bigger than that. Life is broader than that. And we have other duties to fulfill.
We owe it to ourselves and the people around us.
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