I’m not feeling rested. Even if I sit and do nothing…I’m still not feeling rested. That led me to this month’s focus on rest and a quest to figure out what really will make me feel refreshed. I’ll add an aside here to mention that nutrition makes a difference. I feel much better today than I felt before I kicked off my healthy eating challenge six weeks ago. It’s a good start. But, here’s what I’ve discovered about rest.
We have a culture in this country that believes that work is critical and rest is optional. But, that’s not how it’s always been and it’s not how it should be. Rest should be a teammate of work. It enhances, feeds, and enables work. Historically, many cultures have valued rest and recovery as the pinnacle of culture. We don’t, and as a result, we’re exhausted, burned out, and completely stressed. Counter to our culture’s beliefs, we’re actually less productive, do less great work, and are less creative without resting. If, as a society, we want to develop and grow, this is a real problem.
There’s even been a philosophical shift. Today we believe that knowledge is produced. We take action, we create knowledge. So, the more action, the more knowledge, the more production. But, previously, there was an understanding that there is a component of knowledge work that’s contemplative. Time was prioritized for deep thinking and focus.
In the past, top performers, brilliant minds who have contributed world-altering work, treated rest and work as partners. Most of history’s most brilliant minds worked about five hours a day. When they worked, they worked hard. They typically focused deeply for three or four 90 minute sessions a day. What else did they do? I’ll get to that in a bit.
Sure, we all rest naturally, but we all sing naturally too, and almost everyone can get better at both with intentional practice. The fact that it’s a skill that can be developed is good news. You can improve your rest and recovery! I, thankfully, can get better at it!
Not only does rest act as a teammate to work by renewing your energy and focus. But, it actually creates the environment for creativity to flourish. While I do better with deadlines and know that they can enhance creative work, there’s a portion of the creative process that desperately needs downtime. That can’t be hurried, can’t be controlled, and flourishes with rest. When I mention creativity, I don’t want you to understand that as artists and musicians only. Sure, they’re what our culture thinks of as creatives today. But, scientists, mathematicians, and many other fields we consider non-creative today actually require huge amounts of creative thinking.
Ideal rest isn’t sitting in a recliner for a few hours each night. Ideal rest isn’t the absence of activity. Our brains at rest are actually barely less active than when we’re not at rest. When we drop into a resting state, the brain switches on what’s called the DMN, or default mode network. The DMN automatically activates in a fraction of a second when we’re not engaged in a task. It’s a connected brain network that’s separate from other brain networks. The DMN was discovered in the 1990’s and is now believed to be involved in almost every single significant brain function, like intelligence, moral and emotional judgment, empathy and sanity even. This means that the resting brain is absolutely critical to our lives.
Now that we understand some things about the idea of rest, the last piece of today’s puzzle is what I’m most excited about sharing with you. Well, the idea of a five hour work day is pretty darn exciting, but this is going to mean the difference in creating real rest in my life.
When we think about rest as a teammate of work, there are a few plays in the playbook that you probably don’t value as much as you should. Here are a few of them.
We covered this last week in depth, so I won’t go into it here, other than to say, it’s a crucial component of rest. I don’t want you thinking because I didn’t mention it, that it doesn’t apply. It does.
Remember those 90-minute work cycles I mentioned earlier? The key is both the focus during the cycle and the break after the cycle. We need the recovery time from the work, but also the space that it gives to allow the ideas you’ve been at work on to marinate in the background.
What to do in the break? Here are my top three suggestions. nap, walk, or play.
Napping is productive time. Ray Bradbury, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lyndon Johnson and Winston Churchill are all well-known nappers. If Winston Churchill considered naps crucial with bombs falling outside, surely you can consider the benefits yourself. Naps decrease fatigue and increase alertness, but they also improve memory, increase your ability to deal with frustration, increase persistence and decrease impulsiveness. When you sleep and how long you sleep affects the benefits you receive from napping, but even a 5-minute nap shows statistical improvements in cognitive function which last even into the next day.
Walking has been a tool employed by thinkers throughout history. Walking meetings are currently gaining popularity in some corporate cultures, like Silicon Valley. Walking allows us to both relax and diverts the mind to a degree that we can be occupied with the motion and surroundings, but not so distracted that our minds aren’t free to work out ideas at the same time. Being outside in a natural environment is wonderful for our brains. Simply living on a street with 20 or more trees has the ability to increase your life expectancy to the same degree as a $20,000 increase in salary would. But, it’s not just nature, it’s the movement. No one understands exactly why, but the nature of repetitive exercises stimulates our thinking. It doesn’t have to be walking. It can be swimming, running or other exercises where the movement is repetitive but doesn’t require your full attention.
But what about recovery? What about the kind of rest that isn’t directly feeding work? There are some key things to know about this kind of rest as well.
German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag has been studying recovery for the last twenty years. She says there are four key components: relaxation, control, mastery experiences, and mental detachment from work.
Relaxation is easy for us to understand, it’s an activity that’s pleasant and undemanding. Something that doesn’t feel like work and doesn’t require a lot of effort.
Control is the ability to dictate your own time and workflow. People who have more control over their time need less recharging at the end of the day.
Mastery experiences are things that, while they may be challenging, they’re engaging and interesting things that you do well. They make life more meaningful, more rewarding.
And mental detachment from work is becoming mentally and emotionally unhooked from your work. So the ability to feel disconnected from your job is critical to being able to recover well.
These lead me to something I’ve mentioned a few times today but skipped over until now. Play. Play is one of the most important things we do development-wise, but once we pass the age of twelve, one of the most undervalued. Even when it’s physically challenging, it typically feels absorbing or effortless. It’s enjoyable, or thrilling or engaging, but not difficult the way work feels. Activities become what’s known as deep play if they have at least one of these features: it’s mentally absorbing, uses career skills in a totally different context, it offers similar satisfaction, but different clearer rewards or a connection to a person’s past. Sailing, music, sports, chess, gardening or woodworking, many of the things we recognize as hobbies can function as deep play and be useful in helping us relax, detach from work, have mastery experiences, allowing our brains to rest and recover.
I’ve thrown a lot of information at you today and not a lot of practical application. Next week, we’ll tie it all together with what this really can mean in your life to help you feel rested.
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