What if rest is the productivity tool we’ve been missing?

This summer, I read “Rest: Why you get more done when you work less” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. With this book (and several studies and news articles) I’ve been reflecting on where rest fits into my life.

The common misconception is that rest and work are totally at odds: if you’re doing one, you’re taking time away from the other. But rest isn’t about escaping work, it’s about improving your ability to do meaningful work.

Have you ever had that moment on a walk, in the shower, or when you first wake up when suddenly the solution to that problem you’ve been working on pops into your head? It’s not a coincidence.

Pang outlines why those bursts of ideas happen during the moments when you weren’t thinking about the problem at all.

This is how our brains solve problems

  • Preparation. We’re working on a problem, dedicating all of our brain space to completing a project, writing a book, solving a puzzle, etc.
  • Incubation. We leave the problem behind (this is where rest comes in!). We’re giving our mind a break, focusing on other things while our brain works in the background to make sense of the problem. 
  • Illumination. Aha! The answer is revealed to us. 
  • Verification. We take the solution and test it against our original work, sometimes starting the process over until the project is complete.

This process may happen multiple times a day, or slowly over the course of months or years. Seeing it written out, it seems obvious and simple – if we would just give our brains a break, work and problem-solving will become more efficient. 

So why isn’t this our standard operating procedure?

As careers shifted to being more thought-based than manual labor, it became difficult to measure output. We couldn’t always count how many bagels you made in a day or how many tickets you sold, but we could count how many hours you worked. Therefore, the number of hours worked in a day or week became the gold standard for productivity – the more hours the better. 

However, the idea that we do better work by doing more work is actually the opposite of how our brains operate. Pang shares that “A firing neuron uses as much energy as a leg muscle cell during a marathon.” You would certainly rest after running a marathon, so why wouldn’t you practice the same recovery after a few hours of focused work? 

On top of this pressure to log long hours, there are a few things that are inhibiting our ability to work efficiently: 

  • Inability to focus. We have too many distractions and competing obligations (from email/Slack/app notifications to family obligations.)
  • Blurred boundaries. We should either be working or resting. This is harder now more than ever to accomplish with many working from home or in a hybrid environment. Work is always with us; even when it’s not, it may be on your mind.
  • Lack of routine. Having a routine for work creates a space for productivity to land. It trains our brains and bodies that this is the time and place to do certain things. Similarly, scheduling time for active and passive rest ensures that we’re including it in our day and being intentional about recovery.   

If we re-examine how our days are structured, it’s likely that you’re battling at least one of those hurdles. We can adjust our schedules so that we’re focused and mono-tasking during specific times of the day. But believe it or not, there is a right and wrong way to rest. 

Rest as Recovery

For rest to truly be recovery, it must have at least one of these elements

  • Relaxation. It’s an enjoyable activity. 
  • Control. Choosing something for yourself. We often aren’t in control of our own time between pressures or obligations from family, work or friends.
  • Mastery experiences. Gaining advanced skills in an activity over time so that you can enter a flow state where you’re totally engaged but not necessarily consciously thinking of every move. 
  • Mental detachment. Focusing completely on the activity. 

Although plopping on the couch to scroll through social media for 15 minutes might be a break in your day, it’s not really helping you to recover from the mental toll of focused work. 

Popular active rest pursuits among notable creatives and executives include chess, painting, hiking, climbing or sailing. Sleeping (and taking naps) is also a crucial form of rest; we literally cannot survive without sleep and the better we are at it, the more benefits we reap.

It’s worth mentioning that vacations are great periods of extended rest, but many studies show that the positive effects of vacations wear off quickly. A more effective strategy to use rest as a productivity tool is to incorporate it into your daily schedule.

The takeaway is this…

Don’t wait until retirement to travel, take walks, master pickleball or build good sleep habits! Do those things now and watch as your life becomes more fulfilled and you become more productive at work.

Remember, R.E.S.T. = Really Essential Space and Time