Why Rest is as Integral to Fulfilling Work as the Work Itself
Michelle Hutchings, MA, LMFT
Take a minute and remember the last time you took a legitimate break, had some real rest. Can you remember, or has it been a while? And perhaps the word “legitimate” sort of makes you pause there – “what constitutes ‘legitimate’?” If you had a thought similar to this, then whatever rest or break you’re thinking of probably wasn’t legitimate!
In America we’ve come to assume that a busy life is a worthy life, that to be stretched for time means you’re an honorable worker and human. If this is the expectation, then the imbalance of overburdening yourself with work leaves you with little to no time to rest or take a real break. Many times because of this message about busy-ness equaling worthiness, we then feel lazy or guilty when we do take a break, which gives us the assumption that it is indeed a bad thing.
But here’s a radical thought for you – what if rest is as integral to successful and fulfilling work as the work itself?
Before you scoff, let’s consider a couple real-life examples:
In weight training, you use a weight that pushes you and makes you exert yourself, focus on good form, perhaps even do reps till you reach muscle failure. And then… you take a rest. You let the muscle sit for a bit, you breathe, you maybe take a drink of water or shake out the muscle being worked. And then you do your next set of reps. You take that rest between sets, even if it is short, because it then helps you to do as best you can on the next set. It gives a mini recharge to the muscle so that you both have more of an ability to do another set (and have good form) and so that you do not injure yourself. You don’t keep holding the weight between sets, or do half-hearted reps between real sets. The rest is integral to building the muscle and staying uninjured.
When studying for a large exam, most if not all study/prep materials advise you to study for certain amounts of time and then to do something else, or ideally, take a nap or go to bed. This is because research on the brain shows that what is happening in our brains while we sleep is (in part) a combination of solidifying new information gained that day, incorporating it into our existing schemas, and even making new connections we couldn’t have made while awake, and clearing out old, unused information to make room for all that new stuff. This is incredibly helpful not only for studying and educational purposes, but for all types of new learning – be it from school, work, learning a new skill or improving upon an existing one, trying out a new hobby, or even participating in conversations that presented new ideas or perspectives to you. Essentially, rest makes your brain smarter and more efficient!
It is important to understand that the effect on our work of not taking rest is substantial and real. Much like the examples above, to not incorporate rest is to dilute the power and effectiveness of your work, to set yourself up for some kind of “injury” (a mental or emotional breakdown, a physical injury, negative health effects from prolonged stress, taking it out on a loved one, etc.), and to perpetuate a cycle of feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied with your work, which causes you to work harder, more, longer in an attempt to fix that… which causes less fulfilling and satisfying work and the products of it, and so on and so on in a never-ending cycle of “not enough”. This is not to say you cannot accomplish anything if you don’t rest – of course you can. It can even be pretty good. But, it will also be a muted end result, and an unnecessarily large toll on you without that rest.
Now let’s consider what it means to take a rest or break. If your definition of a rest or break is too narrow, it’s less likely you’ll feel motivated to incorporate it into your busy life (whatever the busy-ness entails). What constitutes legitimate, effective rest is going to be fairly unique for each individual, so start there in understanding it! What works for one person may feel excruciatingly boring or awkward for another – for instance, some people feel rejuvenated and clear-headed after doing yoga, or reading, or listening to Ted talks or watching documentaries (all wonderfully effective sources of rest if they work for you), but others may find that those feel like work, bring some kind of pain, or otherwise simply don’t recharge their batteries. Rest, by definition, is something that is both a cessation of what is using or depleting your energy and something that recharges you, fills a need, rejuvenates you and aids a return of your strength.
So now let us define parameters of what does not constitute rest:
If a thing feels like a mere shift in type or intensity of work, instead of a cessation. If a thing is forced by reaching a breaking point and is never fully engaged in or relinquished to (but resisted, hurried, and resented). If a thing only increases anxiety or stress. If it is perfunctory.
You get the idea, right? Basically, take whatever you’ve been considering as rest and measure it against those things. If any of them is true (and be honest with yourself!), then it is not your rest – or, perhaps, you are not letting yourself fully give in to it.
The next important thing to understand about rest is that it has no specific time or frequency requirement. Some people feel resistant to the idea of rest because they think it will take far too much time. For one, it doesn’t necessarily require loads of time if it is indeed a truly restful thing (for you!), you fully engage in it, and you allow it to be a frequent enough part of your work. (It is worth noting also that if you do need a rest that is time-intensive, that is okay!) Secondly, the time you spend on taking that rest is one of your biggest investments in producing meaningful, effective, efficient, worthwhile and fulfilling work. Remember, to work without ever taking a rest is to ensure a mediocre product, or at the very least, one you are not fully satisfied with. And as far as the frequency, this is also so unique to the individual that it can be determined by no one but yourself. You know how often you need a rest, what type of rest, and it will vary situation to situation. Sometimes you’ll need one or two breaks, other times you’ll need many. Either way, there is a wisdom to our sense of need for rest. Learn to listen to it, and you will find it enhances, enlivens, and uplifts your work and your sense of stability, capability, and fulfillment.
Allow me to give a personal example. I, like most of us Americans, grew up with and developed further and further into a strong sense of work as worthiness, busy-ness as honorable, and rest as lazy, unnecessary, and self-indulgent. I had two (what I consider) peaks of this – one of them was at the time I was finishing up my undergrad work and applying for graduation, studying for a graduate entry exam, working over full time as a manager in retail (during Christmas, which is insane!), and applying for 5 grad programs (an intensive process to say the least). The second was while in said grad program, where I was fully entrenched in the coursework, engaged in two traineeships (unpaid!), and working a regular job to pay the bills. Both times I had varying degrees of emotional breakdowns. And they were hard, particularly because of my assumption that I “shouldn’t” need the rest they forced me to take.
It took me a long time to learn and accept that rest is necessary, that it furthers my work and myself as a person, and that it takes nothing away from my worthiness or honorability, and that to push myself to the point of breaking wasn’t strength or a badge of honor. It was disrespectful and hurtful to myself and my abilities. Today I can’t claim to be a glowing example of the perfect balance between work and rest, but I can definitively say that I am much healthier and happier for trying consciously and frequently to find the balance that works for me, and at that particular point in my life. And it is never supposed to be perfect. Perfection is how we got into this mess in the first place! So today, ask yourself “what is one way I can give space to rest, one way I can recognize my need for rest, and one way I can honor it through my actions?” Good luck, and happy resting