Tony Schwartz has a piece in the New York Times about rest and productivity. His big point is a classic example of obliquity: that while we assume that more time working = getting more done,

the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health. 

The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.

Schwartz has written recently about online addiction and the value of vacation in the Harvard Business Review blog, and while I discovered his work after finishing my own book (which is going to galleys this week, hooray!), it couches some of what I talk about in a more business-oriented language.

Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran. This generated mental and emotional renewal, but also turned out to be a time in which some of my best ideas came to me, unbidden. Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work. 

While that may sound like a version of Tim Ferriss' (not the Coming of Age in the Milky Way one, the half-man, half-TED presentation one), but this four hours a day number is one you see lots of authors using as an estimate of how long they write per day, and it's almost always in the context of a very well-established daily schedule.

One other thing jumped out at me, the use of the terms "restoration" and "renewal." One of the later chapters of my book is about restorative experiences and environments, and how we should seek restoration rather than mere rest. The distinction is small but important: rest is something we usually think of as physical and a little passive– lying down or watching TV is "rest"– while "restoration" is more engaged and both physical and mental. Think of it as the difference between a weekend away that leaves you rested but dreading Monday morning, and one that leaves you rested and ready.

Restorative environments aren't just for vacations: they're things you can find and use every day. Charles Darwin, when he moved from London to Down House, built a walking path behind his house, and he spent a couple hours walking on it every day, sometimes thinking through problems, sometimes using the path to clear his mind after a difficult morning. Over the course of forty-plus years at Down House, he walked roughly 25,000 miles on the Sandwalk (the circumference of the Earth, more or less), and wrote The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and many other books. You might think that a lunchtime walk couldn't really boost productivity, but I think Darwin would have disagreed: he called it his "thinking path." Indeed, walking is commonly reported a stimulus to creativity that the ancients had a term for solving problems through walking.

But I think it would be a mistake to assume that the effect the Sandwalk had for Darwin was purely physical or physiological: he didn't just get rest from the Sandwalk, but renewal. All his life Darwin had done some of his best thinking when he was in motion. He had taken to walking long distances as a child after his mother died. As a student at Cambridge he became an avid naturalist and entomologist, even as his performance in the classroom was lackluster. And of course he came into his own as a scientist while on the Beagle. So for him the Sandwalk was restorative, I speculate, because it tapped into this long history of thinking in motion; had he been Isaac Newton, it wouldn't have worked the same magic.

The point, though, is that– as Schwartz argues– the indirect path, with a detour through restorative environments, is the one that usually leads to greater productivity. But everyone has to discover what kind of environment works for them.