This post is co-authored by Laura Copan and Emily Neer
Have you ever lived by the phrase, “work hard, play hard”? Do you allow yourself to rest only after pushing yourself to finish the task at hand?
What if we suggested that this mentality of work and rest is actually counterproductive?
Our society should rethink the relationship between rest and work. Instead of viewing them as opposites, consider them to be complementary activities.1 Remember that “work” isn’t only a stereotypical 9-5 job. Work can include parenting responsibilities, home cleaning and maintenance, and other efforts we exert to maintain our lifestyle. In other words, many hours in the day are dedicated to work, and usually, we think we need to get everything done before we can rest. However, integrating deliberate rest into our everyday routines may lead us to live more productive and peaceful lives.
What is Deliberate Rest?
Deliberate rest is a relatively new term coined by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, referring to an activity that “is psychologically and physically restorative [personally meaningful], but also mentally productive.”1 Synonymous terms are “active rest” and “purposeful relaxation.”
First and foremost, deliberate rest is intentional. You need to set aside time in your day to rest and be intentional about dedicating that time to rest. Second, a deliberate rest activity is indeed active, and something you enjoy and feel refreshed after doing. For example, playing an instrument, painting, golfing, or lifting weights at the gym can be deliberate rest activities. Ideally, the activity puts you in a flow state: you feel completely absorbed by it, and internally motivated to engage in it.2 For example, Emily experiences a flow state when working on jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles are intrinsically motivating for her, she gets completely absorbed in solving the puzzle, and walks away from the activity feeling refreshed.
One of the advantages of deliberate rest is that it promotes recovery from stress. This is because it engages us in an activity that is challenging and absorbing, which helps us detach from that which is causing us stress.
Examples of Deliberate Rest
Deliberate rest includes activities such as deep play, creative pursuits, and exercise. Deep play as a form of deliberate rest is similar to a hobby.3 Deep play activities are usually completely absorbing, engage you with similar challenges and satisfaction that you get with work, and connect you to an activity from your past. Deep play also provides a feeling of refreshment and rejuvenation.
For example, imagine a scientist who enjoys mountain climbing and climbs every week. During this activity, the scientist is completely absorbed in the activity, allowing them to be in the present moment. Both the work of a scientist and the activity of mountain climbing require problem solving, but in different contexts. And solving a problem in the lab and climbing a mountain provide similar feelings of satisfaction. Deep play can help you develop additional skills and gain new perspectives in both work and life. This work/play overlap from deep play can provide continuity to your life, making it feel more unified. It can even be an activity from your childhood, like picking up the saxophone again after learning as a kid.
Engaging in deep play is a valuable way to spend time which in turn promotes productivity and creativity. This is because your subconscious is still processing while you are resting, or in other words, not engaged in work-related tasks and problems. We can see this in brain scans that show brain activity during periods of rest. The default network is an area of the brain that is active when we are resting (as well as imagining the future or recalling memories).4,5 During rest, our brain is busy processing new memories, recalling old memories, and other important processing that we need in our daily lives.
What It Isn’t
An important distinction: deliberate rest is not a distraction or passive relaxation (though there can be a place for distraction – such as to disrupt a negative thought spiral). Scrolling through social media in order to take a five minute break from work is not considered deliberate rest. While this may be valuable in order to take a quick break from your responsibilities at hand, scrolling through social media typically does not leave you feeling refreshed. Remember, deliberate rest is intentional and mentally engaging – not something that is mindless and can be completed in five minutes.
The Importance of Deliberate Rest in Fast-Paced Society
Deliberate rest can function as a coping mechanism for living in today’s fast-paced society. Technology gives us the ability to both work and play. But when tech makes it easy to work from anywhere at any time, it can be hard to balance it with deliberate rest. With smartphones that give us the ability to check work emails at 1am on a Friday night, and cell plans that create WiFi hotspots in the middle of the desert, incorporating deliberate rest in an “always on” world can feel like an uphill battle.
However, we are seeing modern movements that defy fast-paced society, such as “slow living” or cittaslow, and the trendy and relaxed cottagecore lifestyle that emerged as a response to the stress of COVID-19. It’s becoming more normalized to put our smartphones on “do not disturb,” to set boundaries, and to make deliberate rest not just a fad or an occasional reward, but an integrated part of daily life.
Tips for Better Habits
So, how can you practice deliberate rest? Forming habits to cultivate a sense of peace mentally is key. However, forming these habits requires repetition and discipline.
- Find something you enjoy and engage with it regularly. Not sure how to pick a deliberate rest activity that best suits you? Remember, work and rest are complementary; you will likely find connections between the two activities. If your work requires more creative problem solving, you might be drawn to a more creative deliberate rest activity, such as painting. Or, something different might be more satisfying. Remember what you enjoyed as a kid and go back to it.
- Take breaks often.
- Support groups or the buddy system help keep you accountable.
- Start small and don’t be afraid to explore new activities.
- Unplug from social media and technology for a little bit.
Integrating Deliberate Rest in Society
Beyond the individual level, there is a need for systemic incorporation of deliberate rest within the workplace, educational institutions, and society at large. More research into the topic is needed, but as a start, we can begin to normalize rest in our communities. For example, Dr. Connie Kassor, a professor at Lawrence University created a college class called “Doing Nothing” in which students show up to class one hour each week and participate in restful activities such as meditation. Dr. Kassor’s class had the highest enrollment of any course at Lawrence University as of Fall 2022, showing us the strong need for deliberate rest among the college student population.
A recent movement led by Tricia Hersey called The Nap Ministry: Rest is Resistance embeds rest in racial and social justice.6 This movement asserts that rest – anything that connects the mind and body – is a form of resistance to the “grind culture.” When we rest, we are liberating ourselves from the burden of constant output and fighting the demands of capitalism. Hersey’s movement, rooted in her own experience as a Black woman in the United States, reclaims time and energy stolen by white supremacy over generations. Hersey encourages us to rest so that we can reclaim our human-ness and to value rest as an essential part of our lives.
There is a need for rest in our world, both at the individual and societal level. While we work towards systemic change, we can begin by taking care of ourselves. Take the rest that you deserve – often and intentionally.
1Pang, A. S-K. (2016). Rest: Why you get more done when you work less. Penguin Life.
2Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The concept of flow. In S. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 89-105). Oxford University Press.
3Geertz, C. (1972). Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight. Daedalus, 101(1), 1-37. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20024056
4Bellana, B., Liu, Z.-X., Diamond, N. B., Grady, C. L. and Moscovitch, M. (2017). Similarities and differences in the default mode network across rest, retrieval, and future imagining. Human Brain Mapping, 38, 1155-1171. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.23445
5Immordino-Yang, M. H., Christodoulou, J. A., & Singh, V. (2012). Rest Is not idleness: Implications of the brain’s default mode for human development and education. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(4), 352–364. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691612447308
6Hersey, T. (2022). Rest is resistance: A manifesto. Little, Brown Spark.
Featured image by Sincerely Media via Unsplash