Rest: Dirty Word or Essential Activity?

By Jennifer Levasseur

“If you want to burn out and die young, no one will stop you; but if you want to live to a ripe old age, enjoy that life, and be engaged and active throughout, it seems deliberate rest can help you get there.” —Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Rest is a foreign concept to me. I wish I could attribute this to some recent phenomenon—the speed of modern life, the inability to disconnect from technology—but this would be a lie. It’s difficult for me to remember a time beyond early childhood that didn’t involve pushing toward some goal, or to too many goals at once, or with a methodology that required far more energy than was necessary or healthy. I was the teenager who, instead of looking over class notes, would decide to reread an entire novel the night before an English exam—no matter how many hours it took—just to make sure all the details remained fresh. Or to pitch an idea for a book and promise to deliver it to the publisher within a year at the same time I was completing my (completely unrelated) PhD. Even on our honeymoon, my new husband (how I giggled to say that word for years) strolled the streets of Prague and Budapest and sat in their many decadent cafes outlining syllabi and choosing books for the courses we would soon teach.

These are not humble brags: this is a confession of bad behavior, of taking on too much too quickly because I’ve seldom felt I’m doing enough with my time. Of the belief that rest has to be earned and that the bar for having earned it continually must rise.

Sure, it’s worked out well on some occasions, but chronic lost sleep, a fried brain and exhaustion come to nothing good, as we all know in the abstract but try to ignore day to day.

Rest, relaxation, play—they’ve all become dirty words. If I sleep late, I’m a wastrel and it can ruin the rest of my day. If I lounge under a tree on a sunny day, there’s work in the distance glaring at me. What if my natural tendency to push myself beyond reasonable limits is backfiring? What if I’ve actually been going about it all wrong? (Oh dear! and also: Thank God there’s another way.)

I know it says something about me that as soon as I finished a new book about these topics, Rest by Alex Soojung-Kin Pang, I couldn’t sleep because I was anxious to go and start relaxing immediately. So, OK, this will be an effort. But Pang is convincing, even if I wonder where I’ll find the time to rest and play and nap as he suggests.

Rest is full of examples from the arts and sciences that show a clear connection between time spent away from work and the quality of work ultimately completed. He quotes artist after (prolific) artist who works hard and consciously but who also naps, maintains a time-consuming hobby and takes significant breaks while remaining at the top of his or her field. He quotes the journalist Bertie Charles Forbes: “how we spend our non-working hours determines very largely how capably or incapably we spend our working hours.”

Through his study of rest, Pang lands on four big insights. 1: We must think of work and rest as partners. Without good rest, our outcomes diminish. Our subconscious does great work on real problems while we think we’re not thinking about them at all. 2. Rest is not passive. It can come in the form of rigorous walks, running, rock climbing. Even sleep is active. It is the time the brain cleans up and protects against neurological disease. It strengthens memories and makes connections, all while clearing out toxins. 3. Rest is learned and continually cultivated. We can always become better at it. If we use rest actively (instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media or drinking to excess), we can improve our health and even our brain function. 4. Rest is good for creativity. Activities like walks and naps give us more energy and can make us think more clearly.

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While technological advances were supposed to free us up and give us more leisure (most of us don’t hand-wash our clothes or mill our own grains, and we can even do most of our shopping without leaving the house), we tend to use all of that extra time to work more. Pang writes, “Flexible hours often collapse into work hovering over all our hours, transforming work from something you break into smaller blocks and spread across the day into a flood that soaks your whole life.” In effect, we think we’re working all the time because we’re not defining work and rest, even if we’re really sitting at our computers reading endless articles that don’t even interest us or taking yet another unnecessary spin through social media.

He looks at the lives of some of the most productive and accomplished scientists, artists and military leaders to discover how they lived such full lives while discovering truths about the natural world, earning Nobel prizes, transforming art forms.

One of the most important commonalities he discovered is that these people have firm schedules. They often wake early and get the important task done first. Writers, architects and artists (Hemingway, le Carré, Frank Lloyd Wright, Anthony Trollope, Cézanne) have long known that if they work hard in the early hours on their most important projects, they can spend many hours dedicated to rest and play (or the kind of work done just to pay the bills) and still be more productive than if they tried to work all day long. Pang writes, “Virtually every prolific author and scientist would agree. A day that starts with work creates rest that can be enjoyed without guilt. When you start early, the rest you take is the rest you’ve earned.”

Often, what these people earn comes in the form of a nap. Anywhere from twenty to ninety minutes of dedicated sleep in the middle of the day has helped further scientific experiments, bring about realizations, solve design problems, or simply create two fresh days out of one. Sometimes the busiest people with the heaviest burdens have benefitted most from regular naps. Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson all took strategic naps. “Adolf Hitler, in contrast,” Pang writes, “kept more erratic hours at the best of times, and as the Allies closed in on Germany in 1944 and 1945, he tried to stay up for days at a time, powered by a mix of amphetamines, cocaine, and other drugs.”

My tasks don’t involve life and death decisions, but I do take my work seriously. Maybe it’s the word, but in my world, naps have always belonged to children, to daycare centers and the seriously ill or those in need of a mental health day. There’s something embarrassing about admitting to taking naps. But if generals do it (as have writers including Haruki Murakami, J. R. R. Tolkien, Thomas Mann and Stephen King), who am I to dismiss it out of hand?

I tried it three days straight, shortly after lunch for one hour, and I felt like I’d discovered the secret to immortality. I felt fresh, renewed, ready to run around.

Now I’m moving on to his other elements of creating a restful (which also means productive) life. After creating a schedule, working and napping deliberately, we must also know when to stop, how to develop a sleep routine, to exercise for mental agility and to put our energies into creative outlets that have little to do with our work lives. It sounds like a lot to manage, but once we’ve created regular schedules for these that work for us, we’re freed from decision fatigue.

More than any of its specific suggestions, Rest reminded me that rest is necessary and natural and absolutely essential: “Deliberate rest is not a negative space defined by the absence of work or something that we hope to get sometime. It is something positive, something worth cultivating in its own right.”


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