What it is, why we need it, and how to do it right
I’m sitting at home, looking out onto my garden and it is covered in leaves. It’s well and truly autumn. Our wonderful French adventure seems an age ago. We are all back in the swing of school, work, homework, housework, commitments and so on. Work can feel like the operative word. Life feels overloaded and we fill our days with tasks and chores just to stay on top.
But this summer, and into the autumn, I have set myself the task (yes, I know, sounds like work) of learning more about how to rest. What rest is. Why it is important. Why we all need it. What real, intentional rest is over collapsing in front a pointless TV show that you aren’t even really interested in. We can easily get into the habit of work, work, work, work, sit in-front of TV/smartphone/laptop and conk out and then repeat. I know that for me personally that although I’m not a big TV watcher, if I have had a really busy day, I can then procrastinate sleep by trying to wind down by flicking through a twitter feed or maybe raiding the fridge. Neither of which are helpful or positive forms of rest and replenishment. I wanted to learn more about what good rest looks like, and how to help people who like to get stuff done, learn to switch off. As a Strengths coach I am more than aware that many of us are wired to execute, to work hard, and we can have a tough time learning to give ourselves the kind of rest we need.
One of the books I have read for my research was imaginatively titled ‘Rest’ by Alex Pang. It had some helpful principles within it, and so I thought I would briefly summarise it for all you busy people to use as a guide along the way.
There’s a whole load of scientific research to show that the brain works while we are away from a task, while it is wandering. I won’t go into all the science here, but I think even anecdotally I know that often some of my best or most creative moments can come just before sleep, in the shower or walking my dog in the park.
ACTION: Recognise that you will be more innovative and creative in your thinking when you allow your brain to wander and recuperate. Slot in some slower moments. Come away to create.
Looking back through time, it seems that both science and successful people’s stories suggest that we have about four hours per day when we can work at our absolute best. This is, (usually) in the morning. I know that many people argue they are great late at night, but to be honest, for most of us, the science just does not tend to back this up.
ACTION: Look at your schedule. Can you find four-hour, uninterrupted slots to try and get the best and most important work of the day done? Can you find a variation on this if you have less control over when and how you work? By the way – our best work is not the email responding, or the fire-fighting, it’s the meaty pieces of work – the stuff that matters, the planning, the content, the projects. Turn off your email and your phone and zone out those distractions.
We all need sleep, of course this amount does vary. Pang cites so many successful leaders with incredible workloads and responsibilities that made it a daily routine to power nap. Both Churchill and Dali are fascinating examples of napping – Churchill would take a daily nap of about twenty minutes even throughout the most challenging period of the second world war – demonstrating an understanding of his own limits and a confidence in those around him.
ACTION: Take stock of how much sleep you are getting. We cannot stockpile sleep or run on empty for too long without damage to our thinking, productivity and our health (let alone our emotions). Make a decision about when you will get to bed so that you can start your day early, alert and alive. Have a go at napping! I had the first intentional power nap of my adult life a couple of weeks back. I had a very full day and week and so stopped at about 2:00pm for half an hour one day when working at home. I fell asleep quickly, my alarm went off 25 minutes later, and I have to say I felt really good. What’s really important is not going into deep sleep (R.E.M.) – it’s then that you wake up and feel pretty rubbish.
This was a fascinating detour into the need to pull away, for a period of time, to consider the future, strategise or create. In my head a sabbatical is three months long, but actually it can be three days – Bill Gates did this every year and went totally off the grid for this period, and would come back ready and armed with the new direction and strategic plan for Microsoft. Pang also argues that whatever phase of life we are in, whatever our responsibilities, time totally alone is necessary.
ACTION: Look ahead to 2021. Can you plan in a three-day sabbatical? If three days isn’t feasible, what about a day a term? Remember these days aren’t purely rest days – they are restful in environment in order to focus on the future and creativity within our work. Pure rest days (rather than sabbaticals) are when we have our weekly time off, or our holidays.
Rest is not what we think it is. OK, it can include vegging out or doing nothing. But probably, it’s those times that we should be thinking about just getting ourselves into bed. There’s nothing wrong with a movie, or a TV show that we love, but this, Pang argues, is not true rest. We need real play, with challenge and diversion. Deliberate rest. Deep play is different to just a mere diversion because it still offers us the mental and psychological rewards of work, but without the frustrations. For example, I have just joined a choir as a nod towards adding in more ‘deep play’ – I have to think and concentrate and read a score, which challenges me, I get to listen to my voice in amongst the rest of the choir and that brings me satisfaction, but there are no real frustrations that come with it!
ACTION: Hobbies are important. If you don’t have time for one, re-adjust life to fit one in. Rock climbing, sailing, cycling, sewing, painting, reading, singing – these are all great examples of deep play – giving challenge and reward without the major frustrations that can come with work.
The most restorative kind of rest is active. We need exercise to bring our brains and bodies and emotions to life. I think most of us know this, but we don’t all prioritise it. But to fully appreciate the best benefits of rest, we need to add in exercise as part of this routine.
ACTION: If exercising isn’t part of your life at the moment, find a way to include it. Don’t despise the day of small beginnings – a ten-minute walk is better than no minutes sat on the sofa!
The main aim of this book is to argue that rest and play are equals, like two sides of a coin. One feeds into the other, and so on. Rest is not a reward for getting the work done. It is an integral part of the process, at the beginning, the middle, and the end.
I plan to come back to this subject of rest, we are merely dipping our toes in the water with the subject, so to speak, so watch this space. But now, I better go have a well-earned nap, or go for a restful walk in the park…