Go, go, go. Work. Workout. Cook. Clean. Sleep. Repeat.
This (or another “productive” routine) is a common cycle in a society, where we are constantly told we need to always increase productivity. We need to keep going and doing in order to be able to properly care and provide for our families. But what if adding in some rest would actually increase how productive we are able to be? This article will explore the concept of rest, its benefits, the process of resting, and some practical tips for considering rest within your life.
Rest: The Forgotten Part of a Balanced Life
When it comes to being able to optimally function in important areas of our life, it is all about balance. Psychological models suggest that we must obtain a balance between work, play, sleep, and rest in order to be able to do any of these things well (Nurit & Michal, 2003). For many people, work and play fill most active hours, sleep is easily compromised, and rest is forgotten.
In fact, many people conflate the concepts of rest and sleep. However, sleep is a physiological necessity, but a time in which our brains are still quite active. Rest, on the other hand, is intended to be a reprieve from the physical, mental, and emotional demands of life. The goal with rest is to achieve a complete state of relaxation.
People who report feeling rested indicate that there is both a physical and mental component to rest, which are independent of one another. Physical rest includes one’s body feeling relaxed and ready to meet the demands of life and working tasks. Those who feel psychologically rested indicate that they feel mentally “fresh,” they have increased motivation, and generally enjoy their working tasks more. Both are recognized as important, but at the same time, people find it much harder to obtain mental rest than physical rest (Eccles & Krazmier, 2019).
The Resting Process
Rest is not necessarily something one just achieves, but rather is a process and something we have to be intentional about. Wakeful resting primarily involves the ability to psychologically detach from the “work” and “play” aspects of our lives. So many of us socialize with people we work with or from teams we are part of. The conversation of those times inevitably returns to topics related to work and makes it hard to truly relax. This is also why people have found such a hard time with balance during the transition to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to be able to psychologically detach from those tasks in order to truly rest. Otherwise, our minds and bodies don’t ever switch out of work mode and we can quickly experience burnout.
Keep in mind that there are many things that take up the “work” category of life. Our jobs, responsibilities in the home and with family, fitness routines, volunteer positions or side-gigs, and much more can be included in this “work” category. Even though we are able to psychologically detach from one of those and move into another (use workouts to detach from our jobs, for example), this is not rest. We are still using up cognitive resources in order to switch from one productive task to another.
Rest is going to look different for everyone, but knowing what practices or activities enable you to rest is very important. For example, some people rest best inside their own home where they can engage in cozy, comforting activities, while others rest best when they go outside the home on vacation or at a local hangout spot. Some people only feel a sense of true rest when alone, whereas others feel they need others to socialize with order to psychologically detach (Nurit & Michal, 2003).
Some of the components that get in the way of the resting process are difficulties not thinking about “work,” feeling externally controlled by set schedules, tedium of routines, and physical and performance demands (Eccles & Kazmier, 2019). Therefore, we need to find ways to provide spontaneity in our lives to break up the tedium, break away from our routines occasionally, get lost in the flow of some activity entirely unrelated to work, and recognize that we will never be able to give our all 100% of the time.
Benefits of Rest
Why does rest even matter? It is often thought that rest will disrupt our productivity or concentration, leading to decreased performance. People worry that resting will cause them to take longer to complete the important tasks and they will then have less time to actually rest later on. However, we know that rest is important for so many things; below is a list of just a few:
- Recovery: Often rest and recovery are used synonymously. However, recovery is about returning the mind and body to an optimal state whereas resting is physically stopping activity and detaching psychologically. Resting may or may not lead to recovery in either the short or long term. Importantly, however, if recovery is the goal, resting becomes a necessary practice to achieve that goal. In order to recover, we need both components of rest: the cessation of physical activity and the psychological detachment. Both can be equally draining and deserve attention (Eccles et al., 2022).
- Cognitive Functioning: We know that rest is an essential factor in proper cognitive functioning. When it comes to memory, for example, we will retain information better when we engage in smaller, more spaced out “study” sessions that are separated by rest than if we do one, longer cramming session. The key component is that the rest allows our brains time to consolidate our memories, or move the information into our long-term memory (Eccles et al., 2022). We need complete and passive rest, meaning a rest where we are completely physically and mentally detaching, in order to effectively consolidate memories (Pyke et al., 2020). This applies to learning new information, motor skill development (like new or more advanced exercises), or any type of learning situation. In addition to memory, rest helps boost our ability to concentrate and focus on the tasks at hand.
- Performance and Productivity: Rest actually improves our performance. One study found that when people have predictable and consistent time off work, they are actually more productive overall because they feel more mentally rested, which increases motivation and work enjoyment (Perlow & Porter, 2009). Other research shows that even breaks within one’s shift or workday increase both the quantity and quality of the tasks they are able to engage in throughout the rest of the day (Wendsche et al., 2016). Anecdotally, some of the most productive scientific and creative minds in history report only working for shorter periods throughout the day. They accredit the rest they are able to achieve for their productivity levels. Research supports this, suggesting that working in multiple 80 minute sessions throughout the day separated by rest periods will yield the best results (Eccles et al., 2022). Give (true) rest breaks a try and see how it impacts you!
- Creativity: Have you ever had a great idea come to you spontaneously when in the shower or just laying on the couch relaxing? If so, you know exactly what I mean when I say that rest boosts creativity. As much as we try to shut off our minds, this is impossible — they are always processing in the background. Thankfully for us, when we aren’t asking our brains to focus on something “productive”, the creative part of our brain thrives. In fact, one study found that up to 40% of our best and most creative ideas stem from times of rest (Smallwood & Schooler, 2015).
- Mental Health: Finally, rest also has positive implications for our mental health. Rest is an important component to maintaining our mental health in general. Most people find that when they do not get enough time to rest throughout their days or weeks, they become increasingly stressed, which negatively impacts mental health. However, research shows that providing time for rest in the workplace helps to improve mental health and well-being (Michishita et al., 2016; Wendsche et al., 2016). Even if your workplace is at home or in another nontraditional setting, it is important to build rest time into your life in order to maintain mental health.
Even though we all know that rest is good for us and will benefit us in so many ways, it can still be hard to work rest into our lives. So, here are some tips for how to make this a bit easier.
- Schedule rest into your life. It can be very important to identify a “switching off” plan in order to actually follow through with it (Eccles et al., 2022). This means scheduling the time and identifying the activities that will promote physical rest and psychological detachment. Importantly, be sure to schedule these in short-, medium-, and long-term intervals. For example, on a daily basis, schedule in shorter rest breaks (ranging from 5 minutes to an hour). On a weekly or monthly basis, find ways to rest for a longer stretch of time (half/whole day). On a yearly or biannual basis, take a few days or even a week to rest. A technique that I personally use to increase my motivation and make sure I’m scheduling rest throughout my days is the pomodoro technique. This is particularly helpful if you have long stretches of unstructured work. A pomodoro is a 25 minute segment of work followed by 5 minutes of rest. After about 4 pomodoro cycles, I will take a longer break at about 15-20 minutes. I will do as many of those as I need to meet time requirements or until I have finished my tasks that need to be completed. For me, the rest is best served if I am able to get some stretching, light movement, or leisure activities in.
- Consider quantity and quality. When it comes to rest, we can often get bogged down in the quantity. When we schedule our rest (see first tip), we plan it to take up a certain amount of time. However, that doesn’t take into account whether or not the rest was high quality. Many people I work with will finally make time for rest, but then spend that period feeling anxious, guilty, or some other negative emotion. This means that there wasn’t an emotional detachment and that period was not actually quality rest. Therefore, play around with various factors to ensure that rest periods become truly restful. Maybe try different timings for the rest. Maybe try out different activities, locations, or even social circles within your rest periods. It is important to get in both enough rest (quantity), but also that the rest serves its intended purpose (quality) (Nurit & Michal, 2003).
- Add variation. On a related note to the quality of the rest, it is important to bring variety into your rest in order to break out of the monotony of everyday life. People sometimes find that being in the same physical location all the time can work against their rest goals, making variation of location important (Eccles et al., 2022). Practically, this means that sometimes you will need to break out of your typical schedule. Not feeling controlled by the clock can really help you to feel rested. It could also mean getting out of the house on a daily or weekly basis, and/or going for vacations in new locations. It could also mean trying out new hobbies and activities. Regardless of where the monotony exists in your life, find ways to break out of the tedium.
- Identify personalized strategies. Strategies that work for true rest — the ability to psychologically detach from other things going on in our lives — are going to vary and be highly personal. What works for one person might be experienced negatively by another. Therefore, try out a lot of things and see what works best for you. One study indicated that breathing techniques, imagery, naps, and music can all serve as important sources of mental recovery (Loch et al., 2019). Go for walks or hikes, do a paint-by-number, journal, meditate, read a book, play with your kids or pets, spend time in the sun, or do any number of other activities that will help you to personally feel rested.
It is important to recognize here that so much about rest is a privilege. Systems and many institutions are currently set up to work against the prioritization of rest. However, I encourage you to take these tips and apply them flexibly into your life in the ways that make sense. Even adding in small amounts of rest can go a long way for your overall well being!
I would love to hear about the ways you are all able to rest and what brings you the ability to physically, mentally, and emotionally detach! Be sure to share examples in the comments.
Eccles, D. W. & Kazmier, A. W. (2019). The psychology of rest in athletes: An empirical study and initial model. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 44, 90-98.
Eccles, D. W., Balk, Y., Gretton, T. W., & Harris, N. (2022). “The forgotten session”: Advancing research and practice concerning the psychology of rest in athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 34(1), 3-24.
Loch, F., Ferrauti, A., Meyer, T., Pfeiffer, M., & Kellman, M. (2019). Resting the mind - A novel topic with scarce insights. Considering potential mental recovery strategies for short rest periods in sports. Performance Enhancement & Health, 6, 148-155.
Michishita, R., Jiang, Y., Ariyoshi, D., Yoshida, M., Moriyama, H., & Yamato, H. (2016). The practice of active rest by workplace units improves personal relationships, mental health, and physical activity among workers. Journal of Occupational Health, 59(2), 122-130.
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Purlow, L. E., & Porter, J. L. (2009, October). Making time off predictable - and required. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2009/10/making-time-off-predictable-and-required
Pyke, W., Ifram, F., Coventry, L., Sung, Y., Champion, I., & Javadi, A. (2020). The effects of different protocols of physical exercise and rest on long-term memory. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 167, 107-128.
Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2015). The science of mind wandering: empirically navigating the stream of consciousness. Annual review of psychology, 66, 487-518.
Wendsche, J., Lohmann-Haislah, A., & Wegge, J. (2016). The impact of supplementary short rest breaks on task performance - A meta-analysis. Sozialpolitik, 2(2), 1-24.