The art of rest

Living in a world that values productivity over wellbeing, it’s no wonder we struggle to switch off says author Emily Jackson. Here, we look at how to rest more, and rest better

‘How are you?’

‘Good, busy, diary crazy right now. You?’

‘Frantic. Might start sleeping in my office clothes.’

‘Must catch up soon when things slow down’

‘Definitely. I’ll call you when I have a moment…’

A version of this conversation has been playing out in my female relationships for a decade or so now. We’re busy, we’re all so busy. And it’s making us restless about rest. Switching off is not something that comes naturally to us anymore. In a society that values work over leisure, status is awarded to those who can demonstrate just how full their lives are – the Instagrammable dinner parties, the children’s artwork on the fridge, the promotions and work trips. This places value in what we have done rather than how we have felt.

Any psychologist could tell you that we are not designed to live this way, and it is coming at a serious cost. ‘Our normal and regular pace was never meant for humans, but instead, a machine-level pace fuelled by capitalism’s call to create wealth by any means necessary,’ says Tricia Hersey, an activist who founded The Nap Ministry in 2016 to examine and promote the ‘liberating power of naps’.

In modern society, burn out, chronic conditions and mental health problems are all on the rise. Our time is too scheduled, too full, too much. In the wake of a year-long pandemic that saw us all with enforced periods of empty time, we need to look at how we spend our time and how we can get more rest.

Resistance to rest

So why can’t we switch off? One reason is the thinking that more rest means less time to do what needs to be done, that increased working hours automatically equals increased productivity. ‘We think of rest as a negative space defined by absence of work but it’s really much more than that,’ said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant and author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less in a Guardian interview in 2017. When Pang took a year-long sabbatical, he reported achieving more than he ever had in a full year of work, and now he believes that the more rest we get, the more we can actually get done. ‘We think more hours equals more productivity. This is an assumption – a mistake – that we’ve been making for a very long time. And now there’s more than a century’s worth of work that shows overwork in the long run is bad for people and organisations and also bad for productivity.’

Rest also raises an equality issue, with research showing that on average, women rest much less than men. A study by the Office of National Statistics in 2017 found that women had up to seven hours a week less leisure time than men, and it’s a gap that has been growing in the past two decades. Caught in a cycle of work, housework, childrearing and family admin, which despite female advancement in the workplace still largely falls to women (research shows that women are currently doing around 60 per cent more in the home), women are not only left with little time to rest, but have become to conditioned to find it almost impossible to do so.

‘We yearn for rest but then feel anxious that we are being lazy,’ says Claudia Hammond in her book The Art of Rest. We circle around the guilt and anxiety that our stillness translates as idleness. We justify our need to slow down with a list of the busyness that comes before, thus perpetuating the myth that our worth lies in how busy and full our lives are.

Hersey suggests that women’s inability to rest is deeply intwined with a patriarchal society that values male time over female time and GDP over quality of life. ‘Rest is a form of resistance,’ she argues. ‘It disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy. We must continue deprogramming from grind culture. We must wake up. We will rest.’

She uses the term ‘sabbath’ for taking extended breaks. During the height of the uprisings for Black Lives Matter in May, Hersey took an impromptu three-week sabbath. ‘I signed off from work emails, social media, technology and labour to grieve and process. I practice what I preach.’ For a prominent activist to take a rest during such a critical time could seem counterintuitive, but instead Hersey argues that she was living out her truth. For Hersey, the resistance was in connecting deeply with herself, her power, her innate womanhood and choosing the self-love that comes with rest and retreat.

Reframing rest

The pandemic has also forced many people to consider their own relationship with leisure. On the one hand, many of us are facing extended, enforced periods of pause. Empty time that has become filled increasingly with activities such as gardening, walking, cooking, listening to music and reading – all things that Hammond notes as restful.

But, for others, the pandemic has only served to reduce rest time to almost nothing, as school and nursery closures force families into an impossible juggle, reminding us how challenging and impossible our lives are without proper rest. Lurching from work to homeschool to housework to managing finances to childcare leaves no time at all for pause. While, social media memes with entreaties of ‘you’ve got this!’ have only served to reinforce this message that we don’t need to stop.

Whatever our experience, the dramatic rise in cases of mental health referrals during the past year shows us that we cannot keep going at this pace – we need to rest more. And for Hersey, the pandemic has brought a unique opportunity with it. ‘I am sick of rushing and the obsession with opening back up and getting back to normal. I never want to see normal or the way it was again. It is time for a new way…

‘Now that we are being forced to slow down, will we answer the call to collectively stop to dream, daydream, cultivate silence and rest?’ she asks.


How to rest

In this new era, it is important that we remain open-minded about what constitutes rest. In her book, Hammond surveyed 18,000 people worldwide in order to come up the top ten most restful activities. Mindfulness, walking, being in nature and having a bath all made the list, but so did listening to music, reading and watching television.

While you don’t have to work too hard to justify music or reading as a restful activity – both offer us a moment to escape into another world, quietening the mind and distracting us from our darker thoughts.

But, when it comes to something like television, we circle back to feelings of guilt. There is a certain idea that television is the very manifestation of idleness, but Hammond makes an impassioned case for TV. ‘It requires no physical effort, and it requires almost no mental effort,’ she says. ‘And when the programme is any good, it’s completely absorbing. We could practise mindfulness – but there’s nothing wrong with mindlessness too,’ she adds.

The key, of course, is balance. And in what you personally find restful. ‘Choosing activities that give you permission to rest is quite powerful,’ says Hammond. Active rest – such as walking, gardening and swimming – is a great way to take a break without the requisite guilt.

Pang agrees, but feels that active rest has other benefits too, crucially serving to encourage creativity and productivity. ‘The counterintuitive discovery is that many of the most restorative kinds of rest are actually active,’ he says. ‘Things like exercise or walks or serious, engaging hobbies… active rest delivers the greatest benefits. It also provides occasion for creative reflection.’

Creative reflection can be a real benefit of taking time to relax – a break to take a walk, make a coffee or do some weeding can give you renewed energy for the task at hand. But on other occasions, it is precisely this reflection that we avoid. We are afraid of what happens when we rest. ‘It’s not that we find it hard to find the time… it’s that we fear the time,’ says Hammond

In an empty space, with nothing to distract us, we are left ruminate on our worries and feelings. We can get anxious, depressed and start to feel familiar uncertainties creeping back in. But, if we do feel like this, then perhaps this is precisely the time we need to reconnect with ourselves and to go deeper into our feelings. ‘In the right quantities, time spent alone can allow us to retreat and to tend to our emotions, hopefully leaving us feeling renewed,’ adds Hammond.

Learning the skill of doing nothing in particular is actually really important – quietness, slowing down allowing your mind to wander and daydreaming are the things that create space in our minds and help us find the way forward. ‘Rest. Deep rest. Slower movements. Slower moments. Focus on things with intense study. The way my hands move while washing the dishes, the smell of cocoa butter, how my cat’s stomach moves up and down while he naps for 10 hours a day. Become a vessel for stillness. A miracle walking,’ suggests Hersey.

Crucially though, it’s about choosing activities that you love. When you do this, you give yourself permission to give in completely.

‘May you realise the power of taking a rest, since no-one will give it to you,’ declares Hersey. ‘This is why rest is a resistance and a slow meticulous love practice.’

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