Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s “Rest”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Business / Finance

Overall Rating: ★★★★★ (5/7) (solid for its category)

Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★ (5/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~250 pages ex-notes (320 official)

Blurb/Description: Want to be more productive?  Science says the solution may be fewer working hours, not more.

Summary: Please note part of this book (the bit about sleep schedules) is very wrong and very dangerous, as I discuss below.  Nonetheless, most of it is good.

Writing this review demonstrated some of the path-dependency in reading: I didn’t personally find Rest to be that helpful, but that was because I already knew and understood most of what it said: I’m coming from a position of putting a lot of emphasis on sleep, exercise, and eating right (with an extreme emphasis on sleep).

Sadly, the majority of the business world seems to remain more in the “ grit” camp, so putting myself in the shoes of another reader, I think Rest is a useful antidote to prevailing cultural norms, providing a broad array of applicable advice presented in a thoughtful, engaging way that blends anecdotes with scientific research.

Highlights: Rest is one of those rare books that’s the right length: enough detail is provided that readers aren’t just getting soundbites, but Soojung-Kim Pang does a great job of not repeating himself or going into unnecessary minutiae.  I think that the breadth of topics, combined with the plethora of referenced research that readers can “springboard” from (as I did) to delve deeper into areas of interest, works well.

Lowlights: I’ll point out two flaws, one minor and one major.  The minor one is that Soojung-Kim Pang seems to glorify “extreme achievement” type hobbies (i.e., becoming a world-class climber/musician/chess player) over more internally-focused, non-hedonic-treadmill type things.

But that’s not the flaw that makes me grind my teeth the most.  One of the most astonishing parts of the whole book is that Soojung-Kim Pang clearly understands that sleep is critically important to health and productivity, and that sleep deprivation is bad (he dedicates a significant portion of a chapter to it, in fact).  He even understands what circadian rhythms are and cites one of my favorite researchers – Chris Barnes – who is studying the impact of circadian rhythms in the workplace.

And yet Soojung-Kim Pang completely whiffs on the science of chronotypes, advocating a specific schedule (early mornings) for all readers universally, despite this sort of schedule being rigorously empirically demonstrated by science to be severely detrimental to health and other outcomes for the majority of modern humans.  See Till Roenneberg’s fantastic Internal Time (IntTm review + notes) and Dr. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep (sleep review + notes) for a thorough discussion of the underlying science.

Soojung-Kim Pang has all the pieces in one part of his book or another, even talking about the negative health consequences of shift work, but he fails to tie them together in a relevant and useful way.

As such, Soojung-Kim Pang’s “Morning Routine” chapter, from its start up to page 86, is unscientific, illogical, and profoundly dangerous to readers’ health, in that it perpetuates a tired myth that results in clearly, demonstrably negative productivity and health outcomes for about ~60% of the population.  (The portion of the chapter from page 86 on, about routines, is perfectly fine, valid, and useful.)

To borrow a phrase from Stuart Ritchie’s review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, I’d go so far as to call Soojung-Kim Pang’s complete ignoral of widespread chronotype-induced sleep deprivation a “lapse in scholarship.” 

I wouldn’t mind it if he hadn’t addressed the topic of circadian rhythms orchronotypes at all and left out the ill-advised “yay mornings” cheerleading.

But to mention these topics casually and then summarily advocate readers follow a schedule that will, statistically, result in negative health outcomes for the majority of them, without whatsoeveraddressing the type of concerns so thoroughly documented by Roenneberg in Internal Time, or even merely providing readers a fuller view of the research around chronotypes (including research Rest actually cites, i.e. Chris Barnes), is completely unacceptable in my book.

It’s an unsightly patch of pick-your-favorite-gross-stain on an otherwise solid book that ends up in a one-star rating demerit.  (It nearly ended up being a two-star demerit.) But it’s just that: one flaw, in a book that I otherwise think is thoughtful and worth reading for the majority of PAA readers.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Pointshumans vs. econsschemacorrelation vs. causation,memorysleepsample size, Parkinson’s Law, dose dependency / nonlinearityhabit

You should buy a copy of Rest if: you want a good platform for spending a weekend thinking about a critically important topic for both your productivity and your health.

Reading Tips: Skip pages 75 to 86 of the “Morning Routine” chapter as they are completely unscientific / inaccurate, and suffer from logical flaws too severe and pervasive to fully describe here (see my notes below, and read Till Roenneberg’s book Internal Time ( IntTm review + notes), Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( sleep review + notes), or Chris Barnes’ articles for HBR, for science on the topic.)  Consider skimming any chapters that don’t particularly apply to you.

Pairs Well With:

“ Internal Time” by Till Roenneberg ( IntTm review + notes).  In contrast to Soojung-Kim Pang’s egregiously bad and scientifically contradicted advice for everyone to set their alarm clock earlier, Roenneberg provides a thorough, detailed, insightful yet engaging/witty analysis of circadian rhythms from marine dinoflagellates all the way through humans.  There are very few “free lunches” in the world, but getting enough sleep (along with diet and exercise) are three of the big ones;chronotypes and circadian rhythms may be one of the best-researched yet most poorly-understood public health issues around.

“Deep Work” by Cal Newport ( DpWk review + notes).  Newport cites Soojung-Kim Pang’s previous book The Distraction Addiction in Deep Work, and similarly, Rest touches on many of the topics inDeep Work.  I sort of view Deep Work and Rest as two sides of the same coin: Deep Work is about how to structure our work more effectively; Rest is about how to structure our rest more effectively.

“ The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor ( THA review + notes) or “ 10% Happier” by Dan Harris ( 10H review + notes).  Soojung-Kim Pang doesn’t delve into positive psychology and mindfulness, but I think that if properly applied, those are also “free lunches” well-worth investigating and applying.

“ Why We Sleep” by Dr. Matthew Walker ( sleep review + notes).  I call this the “most important book of the century” – no hyperbole.

“ The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg ( PoH review + notes).   Rest touches on routine and habit, but  The Power of Habit analyzes it more deeply.

Reread Value: 2/5 (Low)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Page 2: Our cultural attitude toward rest demonstrates a few things: we’re humans, not econs; our schema toward rest is also maladaptive.

Page 4: Soojung-Kim Pang cites Victor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow) as two of the psychologists he identifies with when it comes to the meaning of “the good life.”  He also differentiates between “serious rest” and Facebook.

Page 5: I haven’t read Soojung-Kim Pang’s The Distraction Addiction, but it’s referenced in Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” (DpWk Review + notes), which is a good complement.

Page 6: A bit of Peter Thiel-like Pyrrhonian skepticism (sort of) that, apparently, Soojung-Kim Pang was inspired to find by John Kay’s Obliquity (which I haven’t read): what if it’s not that geniuses have time for rest… but that geniuses are geniuses because they rest?

It’s not so crazy if you examine it in the context of  sleep: Dr. Matthew Walker’s phenomenal “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes) explains the important role of both NREM and REM sleep in brain development in children/adolescents, as well as lifelong learning/ memory.

Pages 8 – 9: Soojung-Kim Pang discusses the seemingly perpetual human feeling that life is speeding up, we’re all too busy, etc.  Geoffrey West’s Scale Scale review + notes) provides the only quantitative discussion of this I’ve seen so far.  Worth reading.

Page 12: Again, Soojung-Kim Pang differentiates between “rest” in the sense of vegging out, and “rest” in the sense of doing something that’s not work but is still somehow productive.  I do, for what it’s worth, disagree with his glorification of extreme athletics, but we’ll save that for another time.

Page 17: Local vs. global optimization or product vs. packaging: Soojung-Kim Pang notes, as does Newport in Deep Work, that long hours and “looking busy” are visible signals of our productivity.

Pages 22 – 24: A good example of culture /  status quo bias here, among other things: Soojung-Kim Pang notes that:

 “the idea of work and rest as opposites and competitors now seems perfectly logical, but it’s one of those logical ideas that’s actually a historical artifact.  

Before the eighteenth century […] workplaces and domestic space were often intertwined: in the preindustrial era, skilled workers had shops in their homes.”  

arms, still, work this way, of course: farmers don’t “go to work” any more than do live-in au pairs; that doesn’t mean they aren’t working.  Soojung-Kim Pang goes on to discuss modern offices (and open offices – the horror of which is exposed by Newport in Deep Work).

I’ve long found the modern association between offices and productivity to be damaging and anachronistic; it made sense in prior generations but productivity has been disintermediated from time and location by technology, yet (most of) our workflow doesn’t recognize that.  Jason Fried of 37Signals Remote: Office Not Required is a more modern and sensible take on the topic.

Pages 25 – 26: Statistics state that we actually work more now than we did decades ago; modern parenting styles also lead us to spend more of our personal time on kids.

Page 28: Soojung-Kim Pang provides some interesting historical background (of which I was not aware) on the directionally-Calvinist, completely asinine “ grit” mindset: he notes that the tone around cognition changed circa-1800 thanks to Immanual Kant’s arguments that effort mattered.

Page 32: Soojung-Kim Pang here makes an argument directionally similar to Newport’s discussion of deep vs. shallow work – Soojung-Kim Pang believes that ignoring rest is a  local vs. global optimization problem:

 “might make you more productive in the short run but will make your work less profound in the long run.”

Ironically, Soojung-Kim Pang falls for this same trap in about 50 pages with his profoundly unscientific and incorrect advice on mornings.

Page 33: Much of the ensuing science about memory is based on fMRI scans.  I will note that there is some controversy around these, so that’s something worth keeping in mind.  On the whole, though, there’s nothing here that Soojung-Kim Pang presents (at least, not until we get to his horribly, horribly constructed argument for intentional chronotype disruption) that raises red flags for me.

Pages 35 – 37: Soojung-Kim Pang starts to diverge a bit from Deep Work because he argues that not being hyper-focused all the time… maybe isn’t such a bad thing.  Here, he introduces the concept of the “default mode network,” which consumes almost as much energy as active thinking. What does it do? It appears to have a correlation with such wide-ranging capacities as memory, imagination, empathy, and intelligence.

Pages 39 – 42: Again, implicitly countering the ideas espoused in Deep Work, Soojung-Kim Pang notes that:

“some psychologists argue that mind-wandering is more than a mental lapse.”  

Evidence for this ranges from the fact that many of our most critical processes (such as face recognition) are automatic, to the fact that participants sometimes score better on certain kinds of tasks if their minds are allowed to wander than not.  

I’m a little cautious here in terms of evaluating correlation vs. causation because I haven’t delved into the underlying research.  Nonetheless, directionally, I think it’s at least, though perhaps not how Soojung-Kim Pang intended it, a reasonable reminder to zoom out and look at the big picture once in a while.

Pages 45 – 46: Soojung-Kim Pang does acknowledge some of the potential shortcomings in fMRI scanning here, but also points out the phenomenon of people suddenly becoming creative after brain damage.  Cross-read to the lower inhibition and creativity later in the book.

Page 47: Soojung-Kim Pang notes the plethora of “famous stories” of scientists or artists having big breakthroughs when they weren’t actively thinking about a problem.  It’s almost an archetype – Archimedes in the bathtub (“eureka!”) and many others. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb provides plenty of examples of this; Leo Szilard and Lise Meitner / Otto Frisch often thought while on long walks.  Soojung-Kim Pang gets to walks momentarily.

See also Dr. Walker on REM sleep and creativity / sudden insight in “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes).

Pages 56 – 57: I thought this quote about Darwin was cute:

“If he’d been working in a company, he would have been fired within a week.”  


Again, product vs. packaging.  I can relate: I pretty much was fired from my analyst job notwithstanding my capabilities because my productivity didn’t neatly conform to a nine-to-five, butt-in-chair office schedule.  (I’m about to go off on Soojung-Kim Pang about this, actually, as he makes an egregious error shortly.)

Pages 61 – 64: Some interesting data on productivity here; Soojung-Kim Pang discusses that one survey of scientists in the 1950s found that scientists’ productivity actually peaked at ten to twenty hours per week.

I’d be careful taking too much away from this, because, a, sample size, but B, I do think it’s at least directionally a “more is not always better” thing.   Deep Work provides some good thoughts on this topic; in particular, on pages 216 – 217 of Deep Work, Newport cites Jason Fried of 37Signals regarding that company’s four-day workweek during part of the year.

Fried: “very few people work even 8 hours a day.  You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday.  Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek.”

In my notes to Deep Work, I cite Parkinson’s Law as a possible contributing explanation of this phenomenon.

Soojung-Kim Pang provides some other examples of 4 – 5 hour working days among writers.

Pages 69 – 70: Like Newport on pages 33 – 35 of Deep Work, Soojung-Kim Pang sums up all you need to know about deliberate practice.  Much to the chagrin of Amy Chua and Angela Duckworth, life isn’t all about pointless deliberate practice.

Page 73: Soojung-Kim Pang breaks the analytical barrier between rest and work and hypothesizes that we can learn to rest better.  I think this is really quite interesting; it’s a bit like what Helen Fisher does in The Anatomy of Love, analytically deconstructing a subject that most people either don’t or won’t apply logic to.

Pages 78 – 84XXX: This is a great example of  culture / status quo bias – Soojung-Kim Pang here advances the completely unscientific myth of “mornings = productivity.”

Of the more amusing things that happened when I was a high school debater – something I only heard about secondhand, unfortunately – was a judge telling a student to “sit down and shut up” when the timer for their speech went off.  (Usually, students were given a brief grace period to conclude their thoughts after the end of their allotted time.)

Well, if I were sitting in on a presentation where Alex Soojung Kim-Pang delivered the sort of discussion that he does in this chapter – the kind of thing that we south of the Mason-Dixon line refer to as unadulterated hogwash – I would tell him to “sit down and shut up” even if his time wasn’t up yet.

This chapter is, singlehandedly, the worst argument I have ever heard from an author who I actually like.  (The actual “worst argument” award goes to Siddhartha Mukherjee for his bizarre, completely unscientific social-justice ramblings on the topic of IQ, but I don’t like Mukherjee to begin with.

I like Alex Soojung Kim-Pang in general and I think his book should be read broadly. I just don’t like his egregiously faulty logic here.)

I am going to proceed to shred his argument into a million pieces.  Broadly, what he says here is that we should all get up early – mornings, yay mornings! – because lots of famous people get up early in the morning and they think it’s wonderful.

Okay great, that’s fairly easily refuted – it’s selection bias.  Just a cherry-picking / sampling error.  Plenty of famous scientists have been night owls too; for example, some of the Manhattan Project scientists described in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb ( TMAB review + notes).  I don’t even need to waste words responding to most of this section.

But then he presents one – one! – bit of actual science, revolving around the idea of “inhibition” – specifically, papers by Wieth/Zacks and May.  Those studies conclude that certain types of analytical problems benefit from being approached when our inhibitions our lower.  

Soojung-Kim Pang races from that reasonable conclusion to the overbroad generalization that “an early morning start has practical benefits” and concludes, later in the book, “we have to choose to make an earlier start to the day,” as if that’s all there is to it.

No no no no no no NO.  Slow the !@#$ down there and hold your horses, cowboy.  The easiest refutation is the uniqueness fallacy here: if tiredness makes you less inhibited, you could just as easily be creative right before going to sleep as right when you wake up.  I’ve written creatively since middle school, and I recognize the inhibition effect, yet my best writing was always done between 11 pm and 2, 3, or 4 AM.  Not mornings (I tried.)

Similarly, many of my hedge fund letters, universally applauded for being thoughtful and honest, are written late at night.  Moreover, there are other ways to lower your inhibition… why mornings?

Why, for example, doesn’t Soojung-Kim Pang just recommend we all show up to work drunk or high, if lowering inhibition is the key to success?  A lot of writers and creative types and even scientists love hallucinogens, in particular, for their creative effects; Soojung-Kim Pang mentions the conventional, uncontroversial mornings option but neglects to mention that many of those creative people were probably also chasing the dragon.  To this end, many Silicon Valley types are big fans of microdosing.  I am not advocating this by any means (see footnote**), but I do think it would be both safer (less health-damaging side effects) and more effective at boosting creativity than intentional sleep deprivation.  In other words, I’m not glorifying drugs – I’m suggesting that sleep deprivation should be viewed as a bigger risk to human health than use of psychoactive drugs.

But all of that isn’t even the biggest problem with Soojung-Kim Pang’s line of argumentation.  The biggest problem is that these studies appear to focus on your ability to solve a specific problem at a specific time with no regard for long-term outcomes.  He completely fails to account for local vs. global optimization, in other words, rendering his entire argument irrelevant.

It may well be true that certain types of problems are solved better when people are sleep-deprived.  Whether or not it is true, let’s grant it for the sake of argument.  It’s a hell of a long jump from that reasonable proposition to Soojung Kim-Pang’s eventual (implicit) conclusion that late chronotypes’ lives will be better if late chronotypes intentionally, routinely deprive ourselves of sleep.  (Soojung Kim-Pang refers to himself as a night owl.)

In fact, if anything, the science indicates that most of us should be waking up later rather than earlier.  One of Soojung Kim-Pang’s intermediate assumed premises is the disproved myth that late chronotypes can all just happily shift our chronotypes and become morning people, but that’s empirically demonstrably not the case.  It’s not a volitional choice.

To the contrary, chronobiologist Till Roenneberg provides or references an overwhelming amount of research in his 230-page masterpiece Internal Time.  ( IntTm review + notes).  Roenneberg notes on Pages 144 – 149 of Internal Time that the experience of most latechronotypes in the workplace is akin to living with permanent jetlag:

“work times are too early for 60 percent of the population […] I am often asked whether we cannot get used to given working hours merely through discipline and by confining our sleep habits to certain times.  The assumption inherent in this question is that the human body clock can synchronize to social cues. 

I tend to find that any such questioner, who usually also displays a somewhat disdainful tone toward the weakness of late chronotypes, is an early type – someone who has never experienced the [sleep deprivation] problems associated with the scallop-shaped sleep-wake behavior of late chronotypes.”

Among other takeaways, Roenneberg concludes at the end of the book that if (broadly) we woke up later, in accordance with our chronotypes, rather than earlier, in accordance with prevailing social norms and misguided status quo bias held over from previous eras with different circumstances,

 “we would be less tired and more cheerful […] we would perform better […] we would be healthier.  Our work schedules have to acknowledge that most of us are no longer farmers.”

Similar conclusions are found in Dr. Matthew Walker’s phenomenal “Why We Sleep” (Sleep review + notes).  First of all, waking owls up early is a terrible idea for productivity:

“When a night owl is forced to wake up too early, their prefrontal cortex remains in a disabled, ‘offline’ state.  Like a cold engine after an early-morning start, it takes a long time before it warms up to operating temperature […]

Sadly, society treats night owls rather unfairly on two counts.  First is the label of being lazy […] night owls are not owls by choice.  They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hardwiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.

Second is the engrained, un-level playing field of society’s work scheduling, which is strongly biased toward early start times that punish owls and favor larks.  Although the situation is improving, standard employment schedules force owls into an unnatural sleep-wake rhythm […]

Most unfortunately, owls are more chronically sleep-deprived [than larks]. […] greater ill health caused by a lack of sleep therefore befalls owls, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, heart attack, and stroke.”

Specifically, the danger in waking up earlier is, per Walker:

“[If you forego the last two hours of your sleep], you will lose 60 to 90 percent of all your REM sleep, even though you are losing 25% of your total sleep time.”

And what is that REM sleep good for?  Oh, just this: sleep deprived study subjects:

“showed well over a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity […] without sleep […] the strong coupling between [the prefrontal cortex and amygdala] is lost.  

We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses – too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). Without the rational control given to us each night by sleep, we’re not on a neurological – and hence emotional – even keel.”

Summarizing all of his research, Walker’s recommendation at the end of the book is the exact opposite of Soojung Kim-Pang’s misguided one-size-fits-all approach:

“everyone would be present during a core window for key interactions – say, twelve to three p.m.  Yet there would be flexible tail ends either side to accommodate all individual chronotypes.

Owls could start work late (e.g., noon) and continue into the evening, giving their full force of mental capacity and physical energy to their jobs.  Larks can likewise do so with early start and finish times.”

This research is well-known and easily understandable, and it is frankly nothing short of astonishing to me that in a whole book about the topic of rest, Soojung-Kim Pang demonstrates that he understands what a circadian rhythm is, then proceeds to completely ignore the vast majority of science related to it.  

Chris Barnes has written a number of great articles on the topic for HBR; Soojung-Kim Pang even CITES Barnes later (page 119) and yet neglects to mention Barnes’ conclusions on circadian rhythms; to wit, Barnes himself puts a fine point on it in his 2015 article “The Ideal Work Schedule, as Determined by Circadian Rhythms“:

“Managers who want to maximize their employees’ performance should consider [the] circadian rhythm […] this requires taking a realistic view of human energy regulation, and appreciating the fact that the same employee will be more effective at some times of the day than others […] an owl working an early schedule is a chronotype mismatch that is difficult to deal with. 

Such employees suffer low alertness and energy, struggling to say awake even if they really care about the task […] managers often destroy this opportunity to capture value by punishing employees for using schedules that match an owl’s rhythm.”

Additionally, as I reference in the notes to Internal Time ( IntTm review + notes), here, for example, is a review of 38 studies that finds that:

“later [high school] start times also generally correspond to improved attendance, less tardiness, less falling asleep in class, better grades, and fewer motor vehicle crashes.”

 And, finally, on the original point of creativity; Christopher Barnes cites research in his TED Talk noting that:

“We know from a large body of literature that there is one part of your brain that is especially involved in functions like creativity and self-control and managing your attention. 

Unfortunately, we also know that this part of the brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation.  So when you’re sleep deprived, and trying to get a really important task done, you’re going to be less creative and innovative.”

So – let me see if I’m understanding this correctly – we’ve been telling teenagers to “just wake up earlier” and it hasn’t worked.  (Walker explores this in some detail in “ Why We Sleep as well – Sleep review + notes.)  Hey, raise your hand if you want to kill off more kids in car crashes, and prevent them from getting the most out of their education?  … any takers? … anyone?

Yeah no see, when you frame it like that, mornings aren’t so great, huh?  Soojung-Kim Pang’s vanishingly brief discussion of circadian rhythms and over-easy conclusion that we should all just become morning people at the snap of our fingers is the sort of tired, antiquated discussion that Roenneberg has heard many times and calls “frighteningly shallow” in Internal Time.

I discuss all of this stuff in more depth in the  culture / status quo bias and sleep / chronotypesmental models; of course, you absolutely have to check out Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes) and Roenneberg’s “ Internal Time ( IntTm review + notes) yourself.  The science is irrefutable – Soojung-Kim Pang is wrong, and dangerously so.

To use reductio ad absurdum for a second, the problem with drawing “global” conclusions from “local” data of the type Soojung-Kim Pang cites, without considering the “global” consequences, is that you aren’t factoring in all the externalities that occur outside of the current time period.  If I wanted to be as happy as I could possibly be at this very moment, what I should probably do is procure and take a sizable dose of hard drugs and flood my system with an off-the-charts level of dopamine. If I want to have a happy life, on the other hand, doing drugs is probably close to the worst decision I could make at this very moment.  

The conclusion of the cited studies is that to solve certain types of problems, it helps to have lowered inhibitions – which I’ll run with, sure, fine, whatever.  But that says nothing about whether intentional sleep deprivation (a generally empirically validated phenomenon associated with working against your chronotype) results in better overall life outcomes or productivity.    Local vs. global optimization.  See, again, Walker’s book, or any other one on sleep – or Barnes observing that sleep deprivation totally tanks creativity in the long term.

So in any practical sense, it’s completely irrelevant whether creativity is boosted in the short term by getting up early.  Because we know (as Soojung-Kim Pang later discusses himself) that sleep deprivation has devastating long-term consequences, and we also know that statistically, existing sleep-wake schedules tend to result in sleep deprivation for the majority of the working population.  Telling people to get up earlier is extremely bad advice.

Ultimately, this section was extremely disappointing.  This is a whole star demerit from my rating. It was almost two stars.

And for the record, here’s an anecdote of my own: I had to get up way earlier than I wanted to for several years thanks to my job.  Mornings didn’t make me more productive, let alone more creative. They just made me want to kill myself, some days literally, I am not exaggerating.  That is what extreme chronic sleep deprivation will do to you.  And I didn’t get any work done until late afternoon and the evening/night anyway (I was too out of it before then to focus enough to work).  

Now that I get to control my own sleep schedule, and I get up at noon, my productivity has probably quadrupled.  I’m happier, healthier, way more productive, and certainly more creative. Any of my friends who’ve known me over that period of the time would note the meaningful changes in, for example, my ability to cope with external stressors.

In fairness, for people who are early chronotypes, and for later chronotypes who are more adaptable, mornings can be perfectly fine, and perhaps even wonderful.  I have plenty of friends, including fund manager friends whom I respect, who get up early and get a lot of work done. That’s great for them and I have no quarrel with it.  

But mornings are not universally superior for everyone as Soojung-Kim Pang and many other uninformed, unthoughtful people routinely make them out to be.  Just like Till Roenneberg at the end of Internal Time, I’d like to see a world that celebrates chronotype diversity, where everyone isn’t forced onto the same schedule even if it’s detrimental to their health and wellness, but rather can work at the time that’s best for them.

**[[I should note here, parenthetically, that I’ve never had a drink or a doobie / any other sort of drug and am generally philosophically opposed to both.  I’ve literally never had so much as a can of beer in my life; I do, in fairness, cook with white wine on occasion, but a meaningful portion of the alcohol goes away during the cooking process and the remaining amount per serving is de minimis.  

But anyway, if you told me I needed to be uninhibited to solve a problem, I would try both alcohol and drugs before sleep deprivation, because sleep is critical to functioning… I’m certainly not an expert, but having vaguely read about the Johns Hopkins studies and having known a number of people who seemed to have taken hallucinogens one too many times, I would still turn to psilocybin mushrooms well before early mornings if I felt an urgent need to boost my creativity to better solve problems; I imagine they’d be better at boosting creativity and the side effects would be far less dangerous than the extraordinarily severe ones I’ve already experienced in the past, personally, from morning-driven sleep deprivation.  See, of course, my note on page 195 of Dan Harris’s 10% Happier for the counterfactual.

Perhaps less far afield, Roenneberg discusses in Internal Time that one unbroken sleep through the night is not necessarily our original sleep pattern, and hypothesizes that the semi-conscious state “between sleeps” may have been the origin of fairytales.  It’s worth noting that the known psychedelic DMT is an analog of melatonin and higher levels of melatonin while sleeping (such as via supplements) have been routinely linked to more intense dreams in REM sleep.  So, I don’t think it’s a stretch to view higher melatonin levels, whether naturally achieved or supplemented, as an alternate pathway for the creativity Soojung-Kim Pang seems to think is valuable, without any of the potentially harmful side effects of either sleep deprivation or actual hallucinogens like DMT/LSD/psilocybin.]]

Page 89: Back to the thoughtful stuff: Soojung Kim-Pang brings up the idea of routine, and specifically the idea that it can be freeing rather than constraining.

I’ve come around to this idea myself: when I initially took the leap and started on my own, I had a reactionary anti-routine mindset driven by the stupid, artificial constraints engendered by having to work in an office from nine to five every day when that clearly was not the best way for me to get the most mileage out of my brain.  

However, what I’ve realized over time is that, at least in my life, decision fatigue is real, as is the frictional cost of figuring out what to do next.  Having templates for how to do routine things, and times when I do them, has been helpful for me. It opens up rather than constrains my creativity.

See also Duhigg’s “ The Power of Habit ( PoH review

Pages 115 – 117: Soojung-Kim Pang discusses naps but I think the more interesting and important takeaway is the interplay of REM sleep and memory.  This is part of the reason his chronotypeargument is so confounding: he clearly understands that sleep is important, then advocates that 60% of the population intentionally deprive themselves of quality sleep…

Again, see Dr. Matthew Walker’s “Sleep” ( Sleep review + notes) for a lot more on sleep and memory:

Pages 118 – 119: Soojung-Kim Pang cites Christopher Barnes here.  Unsurprisingly, chronic fatigue or mental exhaustion decreases a person’s self-control and decision-making ability” and those who’ve just taken naps are “better able to handle frustration.” 

So, sleep is the  structural problem solving solution to stress (as we’ve thoroughly established) – yet Soojung-Kim Pang advises that everyone get up earlier, even though it’ll cause the majority of people to be worse off than they are already.  Utterly moronic.  I really can’t get over how bad that portion of his (otherwise-thoughtful) book is.

See also Roenneberg’s discussion on pages 219 – 220 of Internal Time ( IntTm review + notes) of beta blockers and melatonin supplementation solving behavioral challenges in Smith-Magenis children that were caused by bad sleep due to inverted melatonin production.

Pages 130 – 131: This is one of my other disagreements with Soojung-Kim Pang, although unlike the chronotypes issue, it’s personal rather than scientific/universal.  Soojung-Kim Pang basically makes the point that, to use the writer analogy, stopping in the middle of a sentence allows you to pick up hot the next day.

I haven’t found that to be true: when writing research documents, I’m often in the position of, say, having only a few hours left in my day and knowing that I can either go all-out to finish it and maybe skip the gym or go to sleep a bit late, or I can let it hang until tomorrow and get it done then.  Inevitably, I find some sort of Parkinson’s Law effect coming into play: if I just get it done, it’s done; if I leave it until the next day, it drags on and chews up time, and the quality of the end-product isn’t usually any better.

So this is one of the rare instances where “grit” seems to make sense – at least for me, productivity is boosted by continuing to work when I’m on a roll and close to finishing something, rather than intentionally walking away and leaving it for another time.  But that’s just my experience, and again, unlike the chronotypes thing, there’s no science behind it. So you’re welcome to try both Soojung-Kim Pang’s recommended approach, and mine, and see which works better for you, and I’ll be happy for you if it’s his rather than mine!

Pages 139 – 140: Here, again, Soojung-Kim Pang mentions circadian rhythms and the importance of sleep for repair and memory consolidation.  Clearly he misses the point of all of this; if you missed my earlier note on pages 78 – 84, the summary is that chronotypes matter: see Roenneberg’s Internal Time for a thorough yet engaging/accessible scientific discussion of circadian rhythms from marine dinoflagellates all the way through humans.

Pages 141 – 142: Soojung-Kim Pang overviews the five stages of sleep here: 1 – 4 (progressively deeper, stage 4 is all delta, Delta for Deep Sleep).  And then REM, rapid-eye movement, wherein we dream. Stage 4 and REM are the most important stages of sleep and research demonstrates that we preferentially catch up on these.  See Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes) for far more on this.

Fun fact on REM catchup from around page 110 of Roenneberg’s Internal Time: high school students’ sleep deprivation is often so bad that when brought into a sleep lab at school start times, they display sleep patterns typical of narcoleptics. (!)

Anyway, Soojung-Kim Pang goes deeper into GHRH (growth hormone releasing hormone), released in Stage 4, and myelination via oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs).  Those who’ve read Deep Work will remember Newport’s brief mention of myelination (p 37) one of the processes believed by researchers to play a role in acquiring skills.  It sounds fascinating and I want to read more about it.

The key takeaway, at the bottom of this page, is from a study by Maiken Nedergaard.  See here: the University of Rochester Medical Center has a fuller version of Soojung-Kim Pang’s quote that I think drives home the importance of sleep:

“The brain only has limited energy at its disposal and it appears that it must choice between two different functional states – awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up,” said Nedergaard. “You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.”

That page’s embedded video explanation by Nedergaard (three minutes) is great too, including (at around 1:20) graphical/visual explanation of the process briefly overviewed by Soojung-Kim Pang.

Pages 142 – 145: Most of our brain is composed of glia, which were once thought to be merely scaffolding or insulation,” as Soojung-Kim Pang puts it.  More recent research, including by the above-referenced Nedergaard, finds that glia shrink while we sleep so our cerebrospinal fluid can go clear things out.

Pages 145 – 152: Various studies here are cited on the perils of sleep deprivation.  I feel like a broken record, but again, see Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes).

These should come as no surprise to well-read readers, but to take the tone of “ Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” MwM review + notes), one of the challenges is that I run into so many people who view this as an other-people-problem: i.e., the mindset of “ sleep is important, yeah… but I make do” or “I just don’t have time.”

Well, make time.  

Soojung-Kim Pang again frustrates me by coming tantalizingly close to acknowledging the importance of chronotypes: on page 148, he notes that night shifts causes the normal cues your body uses to regulate its circadian rhythms” to “get thrown off,” going on to cite many of the same negative health outcomes for shift workers that Roenneberg cites in Internal Time (see pages 188 – 189 of that book).

Soojung-Kim Pang doesn’t get this quite right: it isn’t so much that the cues (i.e. the zeitgeber) associated with shift work that causes the health problems.  It’s the fact that the body can’t really fully entrain to that sort of rhythm, so even if you manage to show up at work, you’re slowly sacrificing your health in the process.  It’s not the cues that are the problem; it’s the mismatch between chronotypes and waking hours.

On page 190 of Internal Time, Roenneberg does the obvious and ties back the problems for shift workers to all of the rest of us:

“In view of the lateness of most people in our modern societies, one could argue that a majority of the workforce is scheduled in a permanent early shift when they work from nine to five.”  

Soojung-Kim Pang fails to tie all this together, and (as I thoroughly dissected earlier) readers should summarily reject his entire discussion about mornings as irrelevant babbling and instead read Roenneberg’s Internal Time.   IntTm review + notes

Pages 155 – 156: Seems more like a hypothesis than something conclusively supported by research, but Soojung-Kim Pang makes the point that sleep may have enabled us to develop our higher cognitive functions.

Pages 166 – 169: Soojung-Kim Pang provides an interesting perspective on recovery (i.e., the “getting better at rest” thing I mentioned earlier).  He cites four contributing factors: relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and detachment.

I think his discussion of each of these is interesting.  I’d push back a little on “mastery experiences” – he seems to tend toward glorifying extreme feats (being a great chess player / musician / summiting really tall peaks), which I think can turn into a bit of a hedonic treadmill exercise if the goal becomes more important than the process.  

See the research on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, etc. I am also skeptical of the physical benefits of extreme athletics for reasons that might just amount to rationalization; some of it is just plain dangerous, but I also think there’s a dose-dependency issue here where putting your body under extreme stress leads, probabilistically, to more injuries and long-term side effects, and there’s some moderate amount of exercise that is probably best.

See this, for example (although not supportive of all of my point here).

Pages 185 – 187: Rosalind Franklin sighting!  Also, some of the science behind exercise and brain development.

Pages 200 – 203: I would be moderately amused to see Newport write a book called “deep play.”  Anyway, the term was seemingly invented in reference to cockfighting… don’t really know what to say about that.

In general, I do find – and again, I would phrase this as a “YMMV” type thing where I’m just speaking about my experience, and not necessarily scientifically – that Soojung Kim-Pang is barking up the right tree here.  I tend to find somewhat engaged relaxation activities to be superior to “veg-out” type relaxation activities from a recovery perspective. But, again, there’s a dose-dependencynonlinearity issue here: for certain people (especially introverts; Susan Cain’s Quiet might be interesting here), a good free day does not involve going lots of places and doing lots of energetic things.

Pages 208 – 212: Again, here, I’d push back on Soojung-Kim Pang’s implicit glorification of “extreme” athletic hobbies; he literally contrasts “a long walk or hike” with “mountain climbing” (painting the latter as superior).  I have nothing against climbing and in fact know several people who do it and greatly enjoy it, including a public-company CFO that I’m a fan of.

That said, I do think there’s something profoundly unhealthy about universalizing the idea of “more bigger faster stronger” for everyone and everything.  I have a friend who does fairly extreme/strenuous ultralight backpacking trips to the point that what he does is actually dangerous; he’s in the middle of nowhere with minimal safety equipment (he was considering not taking bear spray to save weight, and then encountered a grizzly… thankfully, nothing happened.)  

Being in danger and pushing myself to the limit is not my idea of a good, relaxing holiday; I get functionally all of the same mind-cleansing benefits described on these pages by moderately strenuous but certainly not dangerous or breakneck backpacking trips.

None of this is to put down people who do all the extreme athletics: one of my friends runs ultramarathons and loves it.  Good for him. But, as for chronotypes, I think it’s a bit dangerous / naive to presume that’s the right and only way for everyone… my friend who does the really long hikes says that there’s this phrase in the backpacking community of “hike your hike” or something like that.

And it’s one of those semi-tautological yet profound statements: as Shawn Achor would put it, researchers tend to study the averagespositive psychology focuses on the outliers. It is certainlyuseful to be armed with knowledge on what works best, broadly, for people similar to you, but it’s also important to know yourself and understand that there’s enough variability in the human species that your own circumstances may dictate something different from what other people do.  And that’s perfectly fine.

Pages 224 – 225, 227: How the heck do you wind olive oil into a spring?  I wanna. Never mind. The bigger point is that sabbaticals can help provide perspective; I guess that’s one way to expand your schema.

Page 241XXX: Soojung-Kim Pang sums up here… again, the overall message is great, but throw the bit about mornings in the trash, and follow the schedule that’s best for you (whether that’s early mornings, late nights, or anytime in between).

Page 244: I laughed at the “weaponized positive psychology” quip about mindfulness, happiness, etc.  That said, for good books on the topic: 10% Happier by Dan Harris ( 10H review + notes), and Before Happiness (and The Happiness Advantage) by Shawn Achor – BH review + notes and THA review + notes.  Or the famous Shawn Achor TED Talk.

Page 245: Soojung-Kim Pang notes that “world-class performers often are more likely to call themselves lazy than their less-accomplished peers.”  Hey, I’m lazy – does that make me a world-class performer???  🙂 (Yes yes, I know that’s not how syllogisms work.)


First Read: spring 2018

Last Read: spring 2018

Number of Times Read: 1


Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018