July 17, 2018

“Deliberate rest” and why you need it

Are you overwhelmed at work?

When you apply nose to grindstone around the clock, your physical and mental health suffer, and your work does, too.

Many of us know this on some level. We stare, blind with exhaustion, at a computer screen without making progress. We plow through reports into the night only to later find them riddled with errors. Yet, we feel there is too much to do to work any other way.

And we’re wrong.

The truth is, rest is not only key to restoring our minds and bodies. Certain kinds of rest can also enable more focused work, and rest often unlocks creativity. It enables us to sharpen our minds, think about challenges differently and solve difficult problems.

These ideas form the basis of Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less” (affiliate link) and his blog Deliberate Rest. Pang’s argument is revolutionary in many sectors – particularly Silicon Valley, where he experienced the kind of burnout that leads many professionals to look for a better way. But, as his book illustrates, many of history’s greatest thinkers understood and leveraged the power of rest to create art, refine inventions and unlock the secrets of the natural world.

Rest is part of an exemplary work life

Pang’s writing explores the lives of Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Beethoven and other visionaries. What he found and applied to his own life was the idea that several hours of focused work balanced with rest enabled more intensive work and also more creative problem solving. He could do more, with better results, in less time.

The modern work world takes a very different view, Pang writes:

“We see work and rest as binaries. Even more problematic, we think of rest as simply the absence of work, not as something that stands on its own or has its own qualities … we misunderstand the relationship between work and rest.”

So what is the relationship between work and rest?

Darwin, Pang explains, spent hours walking a path near his home, where he did much of his best thinking. His days included naps, meals with his family and other downtime. “If he had been a university professor today, he would have been denied tenure. If he’d been working in a company, he would have been fired within a week,” Pang writes. And yet.

“On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including … The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science.”

“Work and rest are not polar opposites,” Pang argues in his own book. “They complement and complete each other.” They are partners.

The case for deliberate rest

Pang advocates “deliberate rest,” characterized by intention, and he says the most restorative types of rest are physically or mentally engaging. This is what he calls “deep play,” and it enables the subconscious mind to explore challenges in a new way.

Think about the CEO who is also a marathon runner. Or the scientist who is also an artist. Pang explains:

“Deep play provides many of the same psychological rewards and satisfactions as … work, but without the frustrations.” It is, in fact, a skill. It’s a pursuit apart from work that also sustains your work.

Could you be more productive and more creative by working less? Yes, if you embrace the principles of deliberate rest.

Deliberate rest is a choice

Today’s work lives can feel antithetical to these ideas. Whether you are a clinician racing through back-to-back appointments or an executive whose days are packed with meetings, the idea of building in hours for rest might seem impractical. But you can still find ways to reap the benefits of deliberate rest.

Here are some of the tips I share with my clients:

Review your calendar regularly, and remove one item from your schedule every time you review it.

Build “white space” into your schedule to enable that more focused time we all need.

Figure out what restores you outside of work. Even if you can’t make time for it every day, you can make time for it, if you treat it with the same importance as meetings and other professional obligations. Put it on your calendar and follow through.

For many of us, Darwin’s schedule won’t work. But adopting his mindset may very well enable you to do more in less time, without burning yourself out in the process.

Do you make time for rest?

I know from experience that making rest a priority isn’t easy. We can all learn from each other. What has worked for you? What benefits have you seen from making time for rest?

Last updated July 17, 2018

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