Rest as an integral part of productivity

By Artur Odwald

Being productive. Who wouldn’t want that? Get all your work done. Clear the to-do list and clear your conscience. But is it worth spilling your blood, signing the contract with the devil, and never kicking it back again? Of course not. Thankfully, being productive does not mean giving up your life.

Let’s define some things, just to be clear. Oh, and let’s introduce a hero of this story.

Our bodies need rest. They also need sleep. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that our hypothetical human, Mike, sleeps the about eight hours each night and works eight hours each day. Mike doesn’t hate his job. He actually enjoys it, but it’s still tiring. He’s also a part-time student, hoping to expand his horizons. Mike’s to-do list is never empty. So naturally, Mike wants to get things done better. He starts reading up on productivity…

Soon, Mike starts feeling really bad about himself. He doesn’t wake up at 5 a.m. sharp, he doesn’t go for a run, followed by a session of yoga, followed by the preparation of that nutritious smoothie, followed by the consumption of said smoothie on his way to work, whilst listening to a bestseller audiobook which lays out the best techniques to even further improve the quality of his life. He feels like he wastes so much time, and the morning has barely just begun!

There are a lot of people like Mike. People who were tricked into believing the myths of “Top 5 morning routines of successful people”. The cult of productivity is a beautiful lie, but the work-work-work mindset never works. Unfortunately, with the eyes on the prize, people may refuse to believe that rest is something we actually need. It’s even more surprising if we consider that one of the founding fathers of personal productivity, Stephen Covey, included “renewal” as one of the habits in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The book was published more than 30 years ago and was an enormous bestseller worldwide. The seven habits are not a secret, so they can be easily found online (even on Wikipedia), but let’s stick to the last one, the one that I think is commonly omitted. “Sharpen the saw” states that in order to remain effective, we must make renewal a habit. We must rest our bodies, our minds, and our soul (or spirit). That goes beyond sleep.

The analogy of a man who’s too busy sawing the tree to sharpen the saw is often brought up here. Clearly, taking a break and coming back to the task with a clearer mind is a good idea. It may not seem as such when we’re in the zone, working mindlessly. But rarely are we in a type of sprint situation. Marathons are predominant. Work, university, life. You’re here for the long run, and you can’t finish the race in one go. You need to rest.

How we work

Now we need to do some time travelling. Enter: Gregory, Mike’s ancestor. Gregory lived a long time ago, before factories were built and exploited every drop of blood and sweat from their workers. Gregory probably didn’t need to punch the clock. He knew what his task was, he got it done, and his mind was free. Gregory was probably a happier person (although he probably enjoyed it only until his 40’s, unlike Mike who has a good chance of living twice as long).

In her book, Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, Celeste Headlee talks about the major differences between our work lives, and the work lives of our ancestors. The distinction between work and rest was much clearer back then, and we work much more than our ancestors did.

The notion of time-based work is a relatively recent concept, but to us, it feels like it’s always been this way. Companies need to calculate costs, and in general, it’s much easier to pay and be paid by the hour. However, this simplification may be causing us more harm than we realise. If you calculate that each hour you earn x, then each hour will be worth this much to you. Imagine meeting a friend and calculating how much money you may be losing by talking to them, instead of working. This creates an environment that’s always stressful. Each day must be somewhat productive, or we’ll feel bad.

Some may argue that the change was for the better, since if we can get more work done, we’ll be able to advance further as humans. Unfortunately, the equation is not that simple. We’re not robots and our bodies and minds need rest. We need the time to unwind and no amount of supplements will make a human body similar to that of a machine. On the battlefield of efficiency, the robots will always win. We need rest, and we need to spend time resting.

Personally, I think that being able to rest is a skill. It’s not something you’re taught to do, and it’s something we can do wrong. How can you rest wrong? Well, spending time not doing work is not exactly the same as resting. You may be at home, on your couch, but if you’re just scrolling, or surfing, you may still find yourself tired, and, what’s even worse, bored. A nap may be a faster way to regain energy, and doing that thing you never had time for may be just the kind of activity that’ll make you happy.

There’s also something in our culture that suggests if you take a nap you’re being lazy. Curiously, quite a few big CEOs reportedly take naps, but it’s a well-guarded secret. Research actually suggests by taking a nap you’ll be more productive. My favourite resurrection recipe is a cup of coffee followed by a nap. I set the alarm for half an hour, and in that time span, the caffeine should kick in. It’s a great energy boost, and a healthy alternative to an energy drink.

High- versus low-density fun

We may think we don’t have time for those time-consuming fun activities, like playing a game, or reading a book, but that doesn’t mean we’re hopeless. Our days have 24 hours, and that’s true for all of us. Just as much for Mike as it was for Gregory. Assuming the eight hours are spent on sleep, and another eight are spent at work, there are eight hours left. Where are they? Of course, commuting, chores, among other things, soak up time. But some of it may be wasted on what we may call low-density fun.

The high- and low-density fun theory was explained by a productivity enthusiast Thomas Frank in one of his videos. I highly encourage you to watch the short video, and if you’re interested in the topic of productivity, you should definitely check out his other videos. However, here is the gist of it: you should make time for actual fun. Browsing the internet every now and then (low-density fun) may take as much time as setting aside two hours to watch a full movie (high-density fun). Treat the two hours in the evening as a time where you’re occupied, but instead of doing work, watch a movie or play a game. Make it your priority. Make time for it.

It will mean that less time is spent on doing work, but it will also mean that you’re not dragging out your work hours beyond reason. There’s a point where doing more work is no longer beneficial. There are times when a good laugh or some unwinding brings more benefit than another hour of work at quarter the effectiveness. At the end of the day, you’ll be much happier if you did both – some work, and had some (proper) fun.

Thomas’s words of wisdom can be found here:

Post-Mike productivity

We now have the tools our ancestors never dreamt of. We can set a light bulb to turn on at a specific time (smart light bulbs are pretty fun) to imitate the day’s light and help you get up in the winter. We’re on our way to self-driving cars. We can have thousands of books on a device that fits into our pockets. All these are tools and should be used to our advantage. They should be used to improve our work, but also improve our rest. So add a hike to your to-do list app. Schedule a movie night. Buy a new game (or dig out an old one) and make time for playing it. Fun is important, so treat yourself. You deserve it.

In other words, unplug, but really do it. Allow your brain to sort and organize the things it’s already busy with. Don’t overfeed it with impulses. When it’s work time, do the work. Use the tools to be more effective. But when work is over, make sure it’s no longer on your mind. This could mean putting your phone away, and/or turning off notifications. You don’t need to know about every email or message you receive, at least not every hour, 24/7. Don’t let a notification take your attention away from a movie. Don’t go out for a walk with you face in the screen. Absorb your surroundings. Listen to the sounds. Enjoy the symphony of nature in the park. You may soon realize that the break you needed from work was right under your nose this whole time.