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How to rest well | Psyche

Woman Resting (c1942) by Lilian Westcott Hale. Courtesy the Florence Griswold Museum

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Guide

How to rest well

Taking a break isn’t lazy – learning to recharge is a skill that will allow you to enjoy a more creative, sustainable life

by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang + BIO

Woman Resting (c1942) by Lilian Westcott Hale. Courtesy the Florence Griswold Museum

Need to know

Attitudes to rest have changed

Downtime is undervalued in today’s busy, always-on world. But for most of human history, rest – time in which we can recharge the mental and physical batteries we use while labouring – was prized as a gift. To Aristotle, work was drudgery and necessity; only in leisure could we cultivate our mental and moral abilities, and become better people. In The Sabbath (1951), Rabbi Abraham Heschel argued that, in Judaism, this day of rest was more than just a pause in the week, it was a ‘palace in time … made of soul, of joy and reticence’. Even for the less philosophically inclined, leisure provided the time and freedom to do what they loved. When George Washington retired from public life in 1759, he threw himself into building and maintaining Mount Vernon, an enterprise that, according to the historian William Abbot, ‘had on him a stronger and more enduring hold than did either war or politics’.

Today, though, it’s become commonplace to think of work and rest as opposites. Work is active and valuable: it’s where we prove our worth and create a legacy. Popular books such as What You Do Is Who You Are (2019) by the venture capitalist Ben Horowitz carry the implication that being and doing are synonymous. Busyness is a badge of honour, even a sign of moral superiority. Rest, in contrast, is often treated as if it’s passive and pointless. Indeed, I’ve noticed many people hardly think of rest as its own thing. It’s just a negative space defined by the absence of work.

The importance of rest

Rest is as essential to a good life, and a productive career, as work. Overwork is bad for individuals and organisations: a long period without adequate rest burns people out and wrecks company productivity. A deep dive into the lives of history’s most accomplished scientists, writers and even generals reveals that they laboured far fewer hours than do many people in today’s industrialised Western societies, and they crafted daily routines that balanced periods of intensive labour with downtime.

In his book The Use of Life (1895), the Victorian author John Lubbock wrote:

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summers day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the blue sky, is by no means a waste of time.

Lubbock spoke from experience. He himself was an innovator in the world of finance, a noted archaeologist (he coined the terms Neolithic and Palaeolithic, and used his wealth to save the ancient stone circle at Avebury), and a political reformer who led the campaign for bank holidays; yet he found time to retreat to his family estate at Downe in Kent, where he spent time playing cricket, entertaining friends, and talking about natural history with his nextdoor neighbour Charles Darwin.

Recent work in neuroscience and psychology supports this approach to rest, showing how it allows us to recharge and stimulate our creativity, and gives us the mental space to cultivate new insights, and even helps us have longer, more sustainable creative lives. Moreover, studies show that good rest is not idleness. The most restorative forms of rest are active, not passive. Further, rest is a skill: with practice, you can learn to get better at it, and to get more out of it.

So I believe we should not regard work and rest as opposites, but partners. Each supports and justifies the other. Each provides things that every person needs. You won’t fully flourish unless you master both work and rest.

What to do

Rest is like breathing or running. On the one hand, it’s completely natural; on the other hand, it’s something you can learn to do better and, in so doing, you’ll more effectively harness its power to benefit other aspects of your life. Just as swimmers and Buddhist monks learn to use their breath to maintain energy or calm their minds, busy people need to learn how to rest in ways that will help them recharge their mental and physical batteries, and get a burst of creative insight. That requires developing new daily practices, and thinking differently about rest.

Take rest seriously

First, you have to take rest seriously, and give it a higher priority. The fact that you’re reading this Guide is a positive first step. The world is not generous with downtime. There’s always more to be done, or things that could be done a little better. So to harvest the benefits of rest, you need to nurture it and protect it. That means reserving time for it in your daily schedules, and in your life more broadly.

Take a look at your calendar – is it stuffed only with meetings, deadlines and domestic responsibilities? If so, spend some time now thinking about when and where in your schedule you can start to make and protect some time for quality rest. If there’s no apparent space, what are you willing and able to give up to make the necessary space? You might need to get creative – for instance, making a childcare-swapping arrangement with a friend so that you’re both able to carve out some adult downtime; or collaborating with your partner so that you both agree to give rest a priority amid all the other demands on your time.

Establish clear boundaries

The people in high-stress jobs who have good work-life boundaries, take weekends off, and regularly take vacations are less likely to burn out than those who don’t. It’s fine for this time to be unstructured and unplanned; the only bad vacation is the one you don’t take.

Avoid trying to rest and work at the same time (an aspiration made more challenging by the fact that you carry the office around in your pocket). Writing an email at the playground is more likely to yield a poor message and a neglected child than to secure that deal. Clear boundaries between work and rest make both more effective. So, aim to retake control of your nights, weekends and vacations.

Start by cutting down on work phone and email checks in the evenings and weekends, and resisting nonwork distractions during the day. Also, try to schedule regular restful activities with other people, whether daily walks with a spouse or monthly outings with friends – doing so will increase the chances you’ll stay committed to the plans and focused on rest.

Treat rest as a skill

If you’re particularly busy and highly driven, you need to give the benefits of rest a chance to manifest. Don’t rush it. Remember, rest is a skill that improves with practice. Just as it takes time to settle into a new job or place, or a few days to shift into vacation mode, so too will your mind require time to start harnessing the power of rest.

In my own case, it took several weeks for my mind to start taking advantage of a new early morning routine (that freed up rest time later in the day), or to start turning out insights during regularly scheduled breaks from work. So if you don’t see results immediately, give it time.

That said, if you’ve been patient and yet your approach to rest really doesn’t seem to be yielding benefits, you can always look for ways to tweak and improve your rest strategy, just as you can with a diet or workout regimen. This is not to say that you should overplan your rest, or give up your daily walks if they aren’t making you into the next Beethoven or Warren Buffett. Be realistic about your expectations for rest and, remember, if you’re human, you’re getting something out of your protected downtime.

Craft a daily schedule layering work and rest

Your daily schedule is one area where this kind of self-experimentation and improvement can pay rich rewards. We all work in different ways, depending on our profession, the demands of our jobs, and whether we’re introverts or extroverts, or morning people or night owls. But I’ve found that almost everybody does better when they follow these two steps:

First, schedule your work around periods of uninterrupted, highly focused blocks of 90-120 minutes, followed by rest breaks of 20-30 minutes. Most people’s minds have a difficult time focusing for longer than that, even though we might try to convince ourselves that we can work longer (bear in mind that your ability to accurately assess your productivity drops as you become more fatigued).

Second, schedule those work periods so you do your most important tasks during your periods of peak energy and focus (your ‘circadian highs’). For most people, this means doing the most important, engaging work first thing in the morning, and leaving meetings and email for the afternoon, but you do what works for you, so if you’re most energised in the afternoon, plan your schedule around that.

No matter the specifics of your schedule, layering periods of work and rest, and matching critical work time to circadian highs, encourages you to plan your time better, work more effectively, and create periods in the day when your creative mind can work on unsolved problems – and generate solutions that elude your conscious effort.

Practise deep play

Doing world-class work requires having great escapes from work, in the form of serious hobbies or ‘deep play’. Winston Churchill advised that, for busy people: ‘It is not enough merely to switch off the lights which play upon the main and ordinary field of interest; a new field of interest must be illuminated.’ If you are used to keeping busy and hate the idea of slowing down, it might be comforting to realise that some of the most restorative rest is active, not just passive. Rest isn’t stopping. Churchill continues: ‘It is no use saying … “I will lie down and think of nothing”.’ Rather, he said: ‘It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.’

What to choose? That’s up to you, but a surprising number of Nobel laureates, CEOs, entrepreneurs and generals have hobbies that are time-consuming, physically or mentally demanding, even dangerous, such as sailing or mountain-climbing. Others are dedicated runners, painters or musicians. No matter what you choose, though, it should be mentally absorbing, provide you with some of the same psychological rewards as your best work, but in a very different context, and away from work’s problems. For Churchill, painting was deep play – a form of recreation that was a respite from work, and a source of new challenges and rewards. Painting reminded him of the best parts of public life: both required decisive action, a clear vision and skill. But painting got Churchill out in the open, was visual rather than verbal, and the Labour Party wasn’t around to critique his choice of colours.

Don’t neglect sleep and naps

In his 1993 study of violinists at the Berlin conservatory (that inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule), the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson reported that all the students rated sleep as highly relevant to improving their performance and, moreover, that the ‘best group’ (superstars in waiting, as he called them) and the better students (very good, but not superstars) napped more in the afternoons than the third, merely ‘good’ group. The top two groups practised harder, and they appeared to nap more often as a way to recover. They planned their days more carefully and took naps in the afternoon. A 20-minute nap provides an energy boost comparable with a cup of strong coffee (without the later crash), and helps us retain new information better. And even if you can’t nap at work, improving your sleep at home, by setting a regular bedtime, and having a pre-bedtime ritual that settles mind and nerves, will pay off. Long-term studies show that good sleep provides lifetime benefits in terms of better physical health, greater emotional stability, lower levels of dementia and healthier ageing.

Encourage others to rest with you

As you begin following the advice in this Guide, the chances are you’ll find yourself pushing back against bosses who want you to believe that overwork is a virtue, resisting greedy professions that demand your loyalty, and avoiding distractions that aim to hijack and resell your attention. The world tells us: Work is important; we need to reply: Rest is important too.

This perspective can be a lonely business that puts you at odds with colleagues or creates challenges with spouses (who’s going to fold the laundry?). As companies that have moved to a four-day week show – and as I explain in my latest book Shorter (2020) – the more we can solve the problem of rest collectively, the better we all will be. This means building new restful habits with family, new rituals with friends, and new daily schedules with colleagues (sharing this Guide will hopefully help to convince them). For example, holding meetings only in the afternoon, and leaving the mornings free for people to work on their most important tasks, works brilliantly when everyone is on board.

Change needs to come from the top too, and I’ve encouraged organisational leaders to adopt a shorter working week for everyone. In companies that have made this change – which include software startups such as Cockroach Labs, Michelin-starred restaurants such as Noma, law firms such as YLaw in Canada and Kromann Reumert in Denmark, and pest control services such as Griffin Pest Solutions in western Michigan – the shorter workweek becomes a group project that everyone contributes to, and everyone benefits from. One person’s rest doesn’t come at another’s expense; everybody creates more space for rest together.

Key points – How to rest well

  1. Attitudes to rest have changed. For most of human history, rest was prized as a gift; it’s only recently that busyness has come to be seen as a badge of honour.
  2. Rest is important. It allows you to recharge, boosts your creativity, and will benefit your work time.
  3. Take rest seriously. To harvest the benefits of rest, you need to begin by recognising its advantages and carving out protected time for it in your schedule.
  4. Establish clear boundaries. Cut down on work phone and email checks in the evenings and weekends; take your vacations; and recognise that clear boundaries between work time and personal time make both more effective.
  5. Treat rest as a skill. Don’t rush it – your mind will require time to start harnessing the power of rest.
  6. Craft a daily schedule layering work and rest. If you have control over your daily routine, don’t design a workday with long unbroken periods of work; instead, alternate periods of uninterrupted, highly focused work with breaks that recharge your batteries.
  7. Practise deep play. A surprising number of Nobel laureates, CEOs, entrepreneurs and generals have serious, demanding hobbies such as sailing, mountain-climbing or painting – they provide an important diversion, offering the same rewards as work, without the challenges.
  8. Don’t neglect sleep and naps. Naps are a potent way to recharge during the day, while regular sleep patterns contribute to physical health, emotional stability and healthier ageing.
  9. Encourage others to rest with you. The more we can solve the problem of rest collectively, the better we all will be. This means building new restful habits with family, new rituals with friends, and new daily schedules with colleagues.

Learn more

Work better to rest better

If work and rest are partners, an important step toward resting better is learning how to work more effectively, to use your time more efficiently, thus creating more space in your days for rest. For the knowledge worker who has a fair amount of control over her schedules (and, in an era of COVID-19 lockdowns and flexible work, that’s more of us than ever), developing a good morning routine is one of the best ways to create that space.

I speak from experience. I’m not an early riser, and in college and graduate school I often did my most intensive work after dinner, or after midnight. Yet I now regularly get up before dawn to write and, in the 10 years since I started, the practice has been essential to my writing three published books, launching a company, and having plenty of time in the day for breaks and rest.

I started rising early to write out of necessity, not choice. I was working on my second book, The Distraction Addiction (2013), and, with two children and a day job, I found writing late at night after everyone was asleep wasn’t an option. So I tried flipping the day: I would get up early, and get in some work before anyone else was awake. The first several weeks were, frankly, tough: the bed had never seemed so warm and inviting. As I acclimatised, though, it got easier, and I realised that I was making my daily word count (something any writer on deadline obsesses over).

These pre-dawn hours have a kind of creative, almost spiritual, quality that vanishes in the sunlight. Rising early leaves the door to your subconscious ajar. Writing in that not-quite-awake state, I sometimes find myself finishing sentences or having ideas that I’m barely aware of writing, but which are shockingly cogent and clear-headed. It’s also easier to concentrate because no one else is up, and, if I had to haul myself out of bed to be up, I’m going to make good use of the time.

I began trying to improve on the practice. Learning to rest requires plenty of self-experimentation, and over the next several months I discovered several things that have become key to my practice. If you’d like to try a similar approach, here’s what I suggest:

First, set up as much as you can the night before. I programme the coffee pot, lay out the clothes I’ll wear, put slippers by my bed, clear off my workspace, and even queue up the music I’ll listen to. Ideally, the first decision I have to make is at the keyboard, after I’m dressed and equipped with coffee. Setting up the night before means making lots of little choices for my future self. The more thoroughly I prepare, the less I have to think about the next day, and the more the future me can focus on writing. I’ve found this makes it far less likely I’ll rationalise my way back into bed.

Second, plan out the next day’s work. At the end of the evening, before I go to bed, I leave a note on my computer with the first three things to tackle the next morning. This way, I won’t flail around trying to choose what to work on; I’ll just follow the instructions I’ve left myself. I also don’t end each day’s writing at the end of a chapter or section, or even paragraph. Instead, I stop in mid-sentence. This might sound strange, but it makes it easier to restart the next morning. There’s also evidence that the mind goes on thinking about a problem overnight – even as we’re sleeping – which is more likely if you leave your writing (or other work) mid-task. That way, you can start the next morning with the advantage that your sleeping mind might have worked out new connections and insights. The English comedian John Cleese recalls purposefully using sleep to catalyse a breakthrough any time he was stuck on a sketch as an undergraduate at Cambridge. The next morning, ‘nine times out of 10 I would have the solution,’ he writes, adding, ‘I couldn’t even quite see what the problem had been the previous night.’

Third, and perhaps most important, getting the work done early creates more space for rest. I don’t get up at 5am so I can outwork the competition; I get up at 5am so the hardest part of my day is finished before I have breakfast, and so I can justify taking time off during the day to walk the dogs, work out, and have a nap. As they say in the military, the rest you get is the rest you earn. Layering periods of hard work and deliberate rest works only if you do the work first. As Cleese put it, his morning epiphanies ‘did depend on putting the work in the previous evening … I couldn’t just go out to dinner and go to bed and then wake up with an idea. I [first] had to do the thinking.’

While my morning routine is now pretty solidly established, I continue to experiment with it. At some point, it might well lose its effectiveness: our chronotypes (ie early bird vs night owl) shift as we age, the kind of work we do changes, our minds become too familiar with routines. But even if that happens, the fact that I’ve learned how to build a new practice means I have at least a decent chance of building another. We don’t just develop these routines so they’ll help us now. We develop them so we can develop more, and perhaps better ones, in the future.

For now though, I’ll set up the coffee, choose the next morning’s clothes, and leave my future self a note about what to work on first. And I’m already looking forward to the downtime my early start will afford me later in the day.

Links & books

In my article ‘Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too’ (2017) for Nautilus magazine, I describe the daily routines of innovative and accomplished scientists, composers and other creatives.

The online questionnaire ‘The Power of When Quiz’ was developed by the sleep doctor Michael Breus, and is designed to help you identify your chronotype, or the best time of day for you to work and rest (among other activities).

In my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (reissued in 2018 with a foreword by Arianna Huffington), I survey findings from history, biography, neuroscience and psychology to understand the working hours and daily routines of highly creative and accomplished people; I present the science exploring the connections between leisure and mind-wandering on one hand, and creative insight on the other; and explain how we can develop our own routines to better blend work and rest.

The classic work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1991) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – about those periods of deep concentration when we’re completely absorbed in an activity or our thoughts – will change how you think about your mind, your work, and what makes for a good life.

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016) is an excellent companion to Flow, and full of its own insights and tips. It’s one of the more influential books about focus and attention at work, and is something of a mirror image of my book Rest.

In the articles ‘How to Think Smart About Your Downtime’ and ‘A Science-Backed Guide to Taking Truly Restful Breaks’ for Adobe, the psychologist (and Psyche editor) Christian Jarrett breaks down the science of downtime, and suggests how to use recent research on micro-breaks, ultradian rhythms and enrichment theory to get better rest.

I wrote the article ‘Why We Need to Consider Switching to a Four-day Workweek – Now’ (2021) for TED Ideas, to make the case for the benefits of a four-day week, and sharing the benefits of rest with all workers. Few of us have the freedom to design our routines exactly as we’d like. If we want more rest, we have to campaign for it, and change how companies operate.

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1 December 2021