Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Tag: recovery

How to have a more restorative vacation

Erica Alini interviewed me a couple days ago about rest and vacations, and now how an article in Gobal News about “The smartest vacation: How to get the most R and R, according to science.“

It’s a more important subject than you might think at first, because so many of us overwork and treat vacations like a Miracle Cure-All, a couple weeks when we can de-stress, relax, recover the energy we’be poured into our jobs, and generally make up for months of overextension and mistreatment.

But too often, we design vacations that don’t do us as much good as they could. We overstuff them with activities, or sneak in a little work, or do other things that degrade the restorative value of our vacations.

On a recent episode of my podcast I talked with Jessica de Bloom, a psychologist who specializes in vacations, about her research and findings. She has a number of insights about what makes vacations truly restorative, and some excellent advice about how we can better approach vacation design.

One thing she highlighted was the importance of control as something that affects whether a vacation is good or bad. If you do what you like and don’t have to face unexpected problems, you’re a lot more likely to rate vacations as good, and you’re more likely to benefit from them. This helped me explain why over the years I’ve gone from taking vacations that were really packed with activities, to vacations that feature one or two big things a day (at most), and more time for either doing “nothing at all,” or for exploring things we discover on the ground. If you have a crazy vacation schedule (kind of like your normal life!) and feel like you need to see Absolutely Everything in order for it to have been a success, two things are likely to happen. First, you’ll fail to cross everything off your list, and that will affect your level of satisfaction with your vacation. Or, you’ll push to do it all, but turn the vacation into a slog.

The most interesting thing de Bloom said was that her research has led her to take non-vacation rest more seriously. The more she gets into the science of recovery, and understands the factors that make vacations successes or failures, the more de Bloom appreciates the value of taking evenings off, of putting work away on weekends, of cultivating hobbies. Vacations are great, but maybe the biggest problem with them is that we expect too much of them.

I certainly understand the temptation to Do It All, especially if you want the kids to be exposed to new things, or you spent a lot of money to get to your destination; and if the point of the vacation is to educate your kids, or to see lots of things, then go for it.

But if the point of your vacation is to actually recover the energy you’ve drained while working, or to step back from the precipice of burnout, then you could be better off doing less.

“physicians deserve humane expectations in training and practice”

Lisa Merlo, writing in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association:

At the heart of excellent medical treatment is the physician who provides competent, compassionate care. So, rather than treating physicians as dispensable and teaching them to put themselves, their health, and their well-being last, we must teach medical students, residents, and practicing physicians that they have a responsibility to maintain their physical and mental health and to reach out to colleagues who appear to be struggling. Physicians already face pressure to work harder, faster, and longer on a daily basis. This burden begins during medical school and continues well into practice, with spoken and unspoken directives to put patients first; to avoid burdening colleagues; to pick up the slack for team members; to forego vacations; to come to work even when physically ill. But the evidence clearly demonstrates that this way of life is not sustainable, and it does not promote excellence in the practice of medicine. Ironically, when a physician neglects her own well-being, she does a disservice to her patients; when he ignores his own distress, he places undue burden on his colleagues to compensate for mistakes. Yet the recent focus on improving patient safety by targeting medical errors—though extremely important—has largely ignored this vital underlying contributor to quality of patient care.

The time has come to finally and emphatically demand that physicians deserve humane expectations in training and practice and have a right to opportunities for self-care. Taking appropriate breaks or vacations, spending time in mindful meditation, completing self-help interventions, sharing personal/professional struggles with colleagues, and seeking necessary medical and mental health treatment should be viewed as a marker of professionalism, not a sign of weakness.

Parenthood and the need for recovery: we need time away from even our most meaningful work

Slate has a piece by Elissa Strauss explaining “Why retreats for moms are a terrible idea.” I’ll admit that I’d never heard of retreats for moms, other than the kind that are self-organized and often involve booze, but apparently they’re A Thing.

The light snark of the title aside, the article actually makes a good point:

We live in an age in which motherhood has morphed from a biological fact to an all-consuming lifestyle which demands that women be all in, all the time. If moms need to decompress—and they probably do considering American parents are some of the unhappiest in the world—then it would behoove them do so in an environment in which they could leave their mom selves behind. Instead of talking to other moms about motherhood, they’d be better off trying to forget their kids existed for a short time. Ideally, this would involve hanging out with human beings who are not moms, or other mothers who are equally committed to taking a respite from thinking about their kids. Some temporary exposure to everything that exists outside the realm of motherhood will be more restorative than any lecture or journaling session at an organized retreat.

Indeed, we have a century of research by engineers, psychologists, social scientists, and most recently neuroscientists that measure the negative costs of overwork and burnout, and the positive benefits of time off on our happiness and productivity.

For one thing, chronic overwork is counterproductive. Short bursts of overwork may be sustainable, but long periods of overwork lead to higher rates of mistakes that erase productivity gains, fatigued workers, and even an increased likelihood of cheating. Long-term studies over ten or twenty years show that people who don’t take vacations have increased risk of poor heath, depression, heart attacks, and higher mortality rates. So in the short run and the long run, overwork is unhealthy and actually counter-productive.

Another set of studies have measured the benefits of downtime, of vacations and time off. Scientists have found that activities that provide the most recovery are active and engaging, offer opportunities for exercising control and mastery, and provide psychological detachment from work. For example, many scientists are avid musicians or chess players, and they find those activities restorative because they are mentally absorbing and challenging. Active breaks are especially important for hard-working and ambitious people, because they’re the most likely to burn out. The more you love your job, the more you need to take a break from it.

Long-term studies measuring people’s health, mental states, and careers over decades reveal that people who exercise have healthier brains, better brain structure, and are less affected by age-related cognitive decline than people who do not.

Parenthood is a perfect example of an all-consuming job that can be super-rewarding, but which you really should take a break from. Having an identity that isn’t tied to your kids can make you be a better, more resilient parent. For your kids’ sake, and for your own, having a life outside the school and playdates and singing circle, that that doesn’t involve other parents or comparisons of schools or summer plans, is a really good thing.

When taking a vacation is good for democracy

Slate reports on the Post-election plans of campaign staff and journalists. tl;dr: Almost to a person they’re going to take some time off, and try not to think about politics.

Which is good. Even if you like your job, it’s healthy to get away from it. And overwork doesn’t lead to terribly good decisions and analysis, as recent history has shown.

Besides, some of history’s greatest politicians have been mindful about their need for recovery.

Another thing to look for when I’m in London: Nick Littlehales’ new book on sleep

Nick Littlehales, a sleep coach who’s worked with many world-class athletes and is a fellow Penguin Life author (I can’t tell you how cool it is to be able to put myself in that category), has a new book, Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps… and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind. The Guardian has an excerpt on the secret of power napping.

One of the most important secrets of power naps (or Controlled Recovery Periods, as he calls them), is that you don’t really need to sleep in order to get benefits. There are people who resist naps on the grounds that “they simply ‘can’t nap.’ But,” it turns, out, “it doesn’t matter:”

What’s important is that you use this period to close your eyes and disconnect from the world for a short while. Falling asleep is great, but so is catching that place on the verge of sleep, when you’re not quite awake but not quite asleep either. It’s tapping into that point of the day when you’re not really thinking about anything at all, when your mind is a blank.

This is what scientists call hypnagogia, and it’s a state that some creatives, most notably Salvador Dali, actively used to tap their creative subconscious. But, Littlehales reveals, even if you never have Surrealist visions of melting clocks, bring in that state does you good.

Cyberloafing, work, and recovery

This study came out a couple months ago, when I working on the revisions to Rest, so I didn’t write about it then, but it’s still quite timely: it’s a project by Arizona State researchers to measure “cyberloafing” (i.e., using work time and resources for things other than work) and the efficacy of countermeasures against it.

Here’s the abstract:

The goal of this study is to explore and analyze the effectiveness of a possible countermeasure to the so-called “cyberloafing” problem involving a technical solution of Internet filtering and monitoring. Through a multi-theoretical lens, we utilize operant conditioning and individuals’ psychological morals of procedural justice and social norms to study the effectiveness of this countermeasure in addressing the associated agency problem and in promoting compliance with an organization’s Internet usage policies. We find that in addition to the blocking module, confirmation and quota modules of an Internet filtering and monitoring system can prevent shirking and promote better compliance through employee empowerment and attention resource replenishment.

The idea is that while there are sites that people definitely need as part of their work– workplace compliance rules, training materials, stock prices, etc.– there’s plenty of stuff that’s also either of questionable utility, eats up bandwidth, or can actually raise liability issues for a company; but that just banning sites is less effective a deterrent to cyberloafing than getting people to identify what kinds of material is useful, and what’s not.

[Citation: Jeremy Glassman, Marilyn Prosch, Benjamin B.M. Shao, “To monitor or not to monitor: Effectiveness of a cyberloafing countermeasure,” Information & Management 52:2 (March 2015), 170–182.]

“Doctors are prescribing a walk in the park:” the revival of nature therapies

Laura Smith in Slate writes about the revival of doctors prescribing time in nature to deal with obesity and other ailments, focusing mainly on Washington DC physician Robert Zarr:

Zarr told me that exhorting patients to “get more exercise” was too vague. Last year, he decided to start trying something different. He stopped asking his patients, “Do you move?” and began asking “Where do you move?” He discovered that many spent very little time outdoors, and he began prescribing time outside for conditions as wide-ranging as ADHD, high blood pressure, asthma, obesity, anxiety, diabetes, and depression….

Why don’t more doctors prescribe nature? They used to do so regularly. The practice gained popularity in the mid-19th century as cities rapidly expanded… [and] concerns increased about overstimulation, noise, and smoke in cities. Doctors began prescribing their patients visits to more hospitable climes such as the Swiss Alps or the Adirondacks for afflictions from tuberculosis to mental health issues. A thriving industry of sanitariums sprang up with names like the Pines, Lake View, and River View.

This went into decline in the 20th century, but in the last couple decades we’ve started building a body of literature on the restorative effects of nature that explains why time outdoors is therapeutic.

I saw this at first hand this past week, when my wife was in the hospital (she’s fine, thanks). The El Camino Hospital in Mountain View’s new wing has patient rooms that all, without fail, look out on some natural scene— either looking outside at the hills, or at an interior courtyard full of bamboo and other plants. It’s quite striking how seriously they take the idea that exposure to nature speeds hospital recovery time.

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