Is ‘deep play’ the key to unlocking creativity?

A chat with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less on why working harder does not make you more productive.

“The people who are best at detaching are those who… engage in activities that are physically and mentally challenging” — AP. (Image credit: Robert Baker on Unsplash)

Our assumption that we have to put in herculean hours to do really good work is wrong. At a basic physiological level and also at an organisational level, chronic overwork is demonstrably counterproductive. Humans are perfectly capable of handling periods of peak activity, but overwork as a way of life generates its own problems. So much so that it can wipe out the gains we associate with working well.

When you look at the lives of seriously accomplished creative people, that is, people at the level of Charles Darwin, Tchaikovsky, or Nobel prize-winning scientists or writers, you see a very interesting thing. They work and labour for far fewer hours than we think would be required to create a work such as the fifth symphony, The Origin of Species or the theory of relativity.

In my work I’ve observed many people who are able to reduce the length of their working day to around five hours. When observing these people, two things become apparent. Firstly, they work really intensively during those five hours, and secondly, their rest time and leisure time are very consistent. They go on long walks and many of them are more athletic than you would expect. But crucially they do things that give their creative subconscious time to mull over their ideas without their conscious effort. This is both key to their productivity and key to what neuroscientists and psychologists studying creativity are starting to demystify.

Deep play

People who are best at detaching are those who don’t just lounge around, a bag of snacks in one hand and a remote control in the other. They are people who engage in activities that are physically and mentally challenging, and offer some of the same rewards we find in our jobs, but more quickly and in a different format.

A specific example would be Scientists who engage in rock climbing. In both disciplines you encounter big problems that require breaking down to their component parts, executing each phase in turn. In rock climbing, there’s a strategic and tactical element, and, like in science, you have to be very focused. However, unlike in science, where you can spend months and months working without getting anywhere, rock climbing has a very clear outcome — you either reach the top or you don’t. It is also different in that you typically achieve a result within a few hours as opposed to a few months, years or never.

This is what I call ‘deep play’ or ‘serious leisure’. At first it seems as if these activities are time-consuming, but in reality they are physically and emotionally restorative, and also remind people about the best parts of their jobs. They also appear to renew a person’s resilience or capacity to deal with the hardest parts of their work.

“We are all tempted by the desire to perform busyness, to look as if we are occupied, in demand and getting stuff done” — AP

The effect of technology

One of the important things that our digital tools have done is change our sense of how quickly we need to respond to things. One of the unintended consequences of email is that, due to its instantaneous nature, we feel compelled to interact with it immediately. These tools never seem to get slower, and so in our effort to keep up with both our days and our devices, we have to go faster as well.

Faster work is buoyed along by an iceberg of unintended consequences. One of the things that happens with productivity-saving devices is that they make it easier for you to complete a particular task, but they also raise expectations about how much time and effort you are willing to dedicate to your work.

The canonical example is inventions like vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and machines designed for household tasks. In the early 1900s, we spent a certain amount of time doing chores like laundry and cleaning, but in 1970, even though we had all these technologies, we were still spending the same amount of time doing household tasks. Why? One reason is that the distribution of labour has changed radically in the home, partly as a consequence of these technologies. In the 19th century for example, certain household tasks were given to men. Boys took out rugs and beat them free of dust, while men were given heavy manual tasks. With the arrival of products like vacuum cleaners, housework was re-defined as exclusively women’s work.

While a wife and mother in 1900 could rely on and manage the work of other people as well as her own, by 1970 she was expected to do it all by herself. Labour-saving technologies change our expectations of performance.

The problem is that we work in jobs and industries that do not have natural external limits. Farmers can’t plough fields at night and factory workers go home when the bell rings, but a writer, for example, has no obvious external time to stop working. Very often, things like having to pick up your kids or go shopping, or even just living your life, can feel more like impositions on your work time than signals that remind you to stop and do something else.

The proxy for real accomplishment

Consider people at big tech firms who are undoubtedly passionate about, interested in and enthralled by their jobs, but who also have to contend with some subtle and some not-so-subtle reinforcements to stay in the office, to spend just a ‘couple more hours’ working. Overwork doesn’t come from just one thing, there are lots of economic, social and technological shifts that are attributed to our idea that the path to success requires working long hours, and that you have a very short window in which to become successful before you get old or die.

We are all tempted by the desire to perform busyness, to look as if we are occupied, in demand and getting stuff done. In a world in which we can’t point to a bucket of widgets that we’ve made, or a field that we have ploughed, the appearance of busyness becomes a proxy for real accomplishment. Both for others and for ourselves, if we feel busy we can tell ourselves that we are getting stuff done. I am cautiously optimistic that we can push in the direction of a more sane, but still productive, workplace and economy.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is a researcher at the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank. He was previously deputy editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and is the author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less and The Distraction Addiction.