In my last book, The Distraction Addiction, I devoted two chapters to rest and restoration, and the Digital Sabbath movement. In a chapter on rest, I talk some about Charles Darwin’s long walls on a path he laid out on the edge of his property, Down House, and how important those walks were in his daily and creative life.
Looking at Darwin’s life inspired me to look more closely at the lives of other noted scientists, and then the lives of writers, and then mathematicians, screenwriters, generals, and lots of other accomplished people. I’ve noticed that many of these people share something that usually goes overlooked, but which is essential for their success: an ability to rest deliberately.
The term “deliberate rest” is a play on Anders Ericsson’s famous concept of deliberate practice, the structured, regular, mindful practice that he argues turns people into outstanding performers.
What I see is that many brilliant, accomplished people are thoughtful about how they rest; they’re mindful about it; they do it regularly, almost rigorously; and far from being just a respite from their working or creative lives, it becomes an essential part of those lives.
Those of us who are interested in how to work better don’t think very much about how to rest better. Productivity books offer likehacking tips, advice about how to get more done, or stories about what CEOs or famous writers do. But they say almost nothing about the role of rest in the lives or careers of creative, productive people.
Biographers treat rest the same way: you can almost feel an author’s impatience when their subject spends a month in the country, or goes on a Grand Tour of Europe, or has a week’s leave. For them, vacations are a break in the action, an interruption in the narrative, not really a part of the story.
Books about rest or leisure, meanwhile, seem mainly interested in escaping work, not improving your ability to work. Their authors praise idleness as an antidote to overwork and an expression of wisdom. The clever man may work smarter not harder, they say, but the creative man– the true aesthete– doesn’t work at all.
As a result, we see work and rest as binaries. We think of rest as simply the absence of work, not as something that stands on its own, or has its own qualities. Rest is a negative space in a life defined by toil and ambition and accomplishment.
When we define ourselves by our work, by our dedication and effectiveness and willingness to go the extra mile, then it’s easy to see rest as the negation of all those things. When your work is your self, when you cease work, you cease to exist.
When we think of rest as work’s opposite, we take it less seriously, and even avoid it. Americans work more and vacation less than almost any other nationality in the world. Contrary to the expectations of economists (and in defiance of common sense), as we become more productive, we work longer hours, not shorter. We leave vacation days unused. When we do finally go on vacation we compulsively check our email.
As a result, we underestimate how much good serious rest can do us. And we also underestimate how much we can do if we take rest seriously.
The ancient Greeks, a civilization built on the labor of farmers and merchants and warriors (and slaves), saw rest as a great gift, as the pinnacle of civilized life. They recognized that both work and rest were necessary: the one provided the means to live, the other gave meaning to life.
The Roman Stoics argued that you cannot have a good life without good work. Indeed, virtually every society, every religion, every philosophical school, recognizes the necessity of both work and rest, and the need to balance them.
Today we need to rethink the relationship between work and rest, acknowledge their intimate relationship, and rediscover the role that rest plays in helping us be creative and productive. Fortunately, there have been lots of discoveries in psychology, neuroscience, organizational behavior, sports medicine, sociology, and other fields that give us insight into the unsung but critical role that rest plays in strengthening the brain, enhancing learning, enabling inspiration, and making innovation sustainable.
I’ve found three big insights running through this diverse body of research.
The first is that work and rest are not opposites.
Work and rest are partners. Rest is an essential component of good work.
World-class musicians, Olympic athletes, writers, designers, and other accomplished and creative people alternate daily periods of intense work and concentration with long breaks.
For a very long time, inspiration and creativity have been something of a mystery: our desire for creativity has always exceeded our understanding of how it works, why it strikes at some times and not others, and what if anything we can do to improve it. We’re now a few steps closer to uncovering the cognitive processes that are active during creative moments, of seeing what happens in the brain when insight dawns.
We don’t understand it all, by any means; “brain” and “creativity” are two of the most complex things you can ever study, and there are lots of big questions our tools still can’t answer. But it’s clearer that the brain’s creative work is never done, that even in its resting state the brain is plugging away at problems, examining and tossing out possible answers, looking for novelty. This is a process we can’t really control.
But by learning to rest better, we can support it, let it work, and take notice when it’s found something that deserves our attention.
Second, rest is a skill.
Rest turns out to be like singing or running. Everyone basically knows how to do it. But with a little work and understanding, you can learn to do it a lot better. You can enjoy rest more profoundly, and be more refreshed and restored.
People don’t just become world-class performers through deliberate practice. They also practice what you could call deliberate rest. They find rest that is psychologically and physically restorative, but also mentally productive. Deliberate rest helps you recover from the stresses and exhaustion of the day, allows new experiences and lessons to settle in your memory, and gives your subconscious mind space to keep working.
And it’s often in these periods of deliberate rest and apparent leisure— when you’re not obviously working, or trying to work— that you can have some of your best ideas.
Finally, deliberate rest helps you lead a creative life that lasts your whole life.
Today we venerate the child-entrepreneur, admire the teenage billionaire, and see long hours and overwork as honorable. This isn’t inherently bad. I look back fondly on some of my hardest jobs because of the camaraderie I found working long hours with good people, pushing the boundaries of our company, and trying new things.
But we need to recognize that in today’s professional service economy, putting in long hours isn’t mainly about increasing your productivity. In a factory or workshop it’s easy to see who the most productive person is: at the end of the day, you can count the number of pieces they’ve made.
In some professions there are clear measures of productivity: the number of customers helped, patients treated, dollars made, cars repaired. But for those of us who work in teams on complicated, open-ended projects, long hours are an expression of our identity, and proof of our seriousness.
They don’t necessarily make us more productive; they make us look more productive. For bosses, it’s an easy way to see who’s really committed and who isn’t– even if it’s a terrible predictor of who’s going to be good.
In Silicon Valley, where I live, the reigning assumption is that success is a race against time and obsolescence. If you’re not rich by the time you’re 30, before your skills become obsolete and you become too decrepit to work 100-hour weeks, you never will be.
This is a model that works fabulously well for a tiny number of people. But many more people who work this way burn themselves out, with little to show for it at the end. But people who learn to rest deliberately ultimately can get more done, for longer periods of their lives. Their careers aren’t races against time, because they don’t have to be.
So it’s high time to rethink our relationship between work and rest.
We need to recognize that work and rest aren’t opposites like black and white or good and evil; they’re more like different points on life’s wave. You can’t have a crest without a trough. You can’t have the highs without the lows.
But we also need to recognize that we can learn to rest better. Some of history’s most creative people, people whose achievements in art and science and literature are legendary, took rest very seriously. They found that in order to realize their ambitions, to do the kind of work they wanted to, that the right kinds of rest would restore their energy, while allowing their muse, that mysterious part of their minds that help drive the creative process, to keep going.
Work and rest are not polar opposites. In a good life, rest is not work’s opposite. Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other.