The Wisdom of Rest
A book about deliberate rest may be the answer to your burnout.
Posted May 9, 2018
Slow down your internet perusal and read this title—Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Now rest your tired eyes for a moment and consider the implications.
I recently interviewed Dr. Alex Pang, author of Rest, who writes that work and rest are allies, not adversaries. That means that in order to take your work more seriously, you need to elevate the importance of your rest.
Easy to say, hard to do. Especially if you live in the real world of work demands, pressures to be available as parent, spouse, friend, and a self-driven desire to perform to your own high standards.
It was during a time of my own work (and parenting) burnout that I picked up Pang’s Rest. At that time, I was also exploring the ancient philosophy of Taoism. It seemed a great coincidence that much of the scientifically and anecdotally-backed wisdom of Rest paralleled the ancient wisdom articulated in Taoist philosophy.
A foundational tenet of Taoism suggests that the opposing forces of yin and yang underlie the natural order of the universe. Yin-yang is sometimes translated as “positive-negative” and is graphically represented as dark and light shapes that are intertwined and contain a dot of one another. This representation makes evident that forces seemingly in conflict with one another are, more accurately, holding one another in a healthy, sustainable balance. In other words, forces we experience as being in opposition may actually create harmony by virtue of their contradictory natures.
What that means in practice may be simpler than you think, and it begins with appreciating and embracing the way that work and rest press against each other. For example, rather than gritting your teeth through another work day on fumes of exhaustion, you might recognize the signs of your fatigue. Instead of caffeinating through that fatigue fog, you might observe your deteriorating effectiveness and—wait for it—stop working. Depending on your circumstances, you might choose to stop for the day, switch temporarily to another task, go for a walk, or close your eyes for a brief mental vacation. These are all modes of what Pang calls “deliberate rest,” and they are each effective strategies for providing an opportunity for your work brain to take a break. Whether you to engage in relaxation or deep play, that break will allow you to return to your work with greater effectiveness.
If it seems a little overly rosy to think resting more will help you to work better, Pang’s book may just convince you otherwise. Indeed, he reviews the lives of a great many creatives who, early in their careers, worked intensely hard only to burn themselves out. With practice, these creative giants (prominent artists, writers, composers, and scientists among the lot) created daily practices that prioritized rest, thereby stimulating enormous creativity, productivity, and sustaining that creativity for their lifelong work.
But what do you do in a world that presses us to always work more? Not to mention the dilemma of what to do if you have other responsibilities, such as children or ailing parents. These are tricky issues when it comes to carving out time for rest. Yet, as Dr. Pang shared with me, “the more that you can recognize the role that good rest plays in helping balance our lives and helping us actually be more creative, more productive, better parents, the more likely you are to defend it against a world that will find other uses for that time that would be better for them but not better for you.” You will be more successful in building restful practices if you recognize the enormous value they have.
As Dr. Pang told me, “we often think of rest as something we’ll get done when we’re get done with everything else. The problem is, we’re never done. There is always more to do or more that we think we ought to be doing.” Young children, demanding jobs, and desires to participate in all the domains of life that you value won’t make it easy. But if you find ways to practice prioritizing rest, you and your life’s work will benefit.
Pang, A. (2016). Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. New York: Basic Books.