How to Rest Well

December 3, 2021

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

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.

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.

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