Deliberate rest: Why you should spend a day a month connecting, learning, and avoiding “urgent” tasks

For most people, taking a break means 15 minutes to grab a coffee or a weekend out of town. But more research is showing that to do our best work, we need to do less of it.

And not just in a cram-more-into-the-workday sense.

Instead, the key to successful, productive work days might just be something called deliberate rest. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, explains:

“Work and rest are actually partners. They are like different parts of a wave. You can’t have the high without the low. The better you are at resting, the better you will be at working.”

So just what is deliberate rest? And how can we use it to make sure our downtime is as productive as our working time?

Why we have so much trouble taking time off

deliberate rest problems

Some of the most successful people in history have worked the shortest hours.

Charles Darwin, Stephen King, and Maya Angelou have produced massive, influential bodies of work, without needing to work 40, 50, or 60+ hour weeks.

But for most of us, the idea that we can work less and still hit our long term goals seems counterintuitive. There’s lots of reasons why this is the common belief, but here’s a few of the big ones:

  • We think more work should equal more output: Most industries champion long working hours in some way or another. And we see productivity not as doing more with less. But simply doing more.
  • We’re afraid of being “left behind”: In our competitive work environment, the thought of taking time off is scary. Not only could we miss out on some important conversation, but we worry that we’ll be left behind.
  • Work has become a larger part of our identity: Perhaps most importantly, we feel personally connected to the work we do. Taking time away opens up all sorts of questions that can be hard to face. And even harder to answer. As Soojun-Kim Pang puts it, “When your work is your self, when you cease work, you cease to exist.”

The problem with all these reasons is that they defer to short-term thinking.

The majority of productive people cite being able to break free from that short-term mentality as the breakthrough in their work.

Worse, short-term thinking is one of the biggest causes of workplace stress and burnout. We find it too easy to say “Sure, I’ll work those extra hours this week,” when there’s probably a better option.

Deliberate rest solves both these issues. Not only does it give your mind and body some much-needed downtime. But it allows you to use your time away from work to build the skills, connections, and mentality you need to eventually hit your long-term goals.

RescueTime gives you accurate information about how you’re spending your days (and when it’s time to take a break). Sign up for free today and starting taking back control of your time.

What is deliberate rest? And how do you use it?

Deliberate rest is a play on the term “deliberate practice” which describes the method of continually and systematically challenging yourself when you’re practicing a skill (rather than just running through what you feel comfortable with).

So, instead of kicking back with Netflix and a cold beverage, deliberate rest means engaging with restful activities that are often vigorous and mentally engaging.

But that doesn’t sound very restful?

True. If you think of rest as simply the absence of work, then deliberate rest sounds more like a continuation of your workday. But in reality, what we’re talking about is finding activities that let you recharge from your workday, while still being mentally productive.

Or, as Alex Soojun-Kim Pang describes it in his Deliberate Rest Manifesto:

“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.”

Take Winston Churchill, for example. After the First World War, Churchill took up painting, which he described in his book Painting as a Pastime as being very much like politics. It requires the same kind of boldness and decisiveness. You need to have a clear vision of what is in front of you and what you want to achieve. And yet, at the same time, it’s incredibly restorative, letting you express your creativity and put your cares aside.

For Churchill, painting wasn’t a form of escapism. But a new and restorative way to explore his skills.

What to do during periods of deliberate rest

Deliberate rest guide

It’s not easy to find your version of deliberate rest.

As Scott Belsky, co-founder of Behance, argues, we all seem to crave distraction over downtime:

“During these temporary voids of distraction, our minds return to the uncertainty and fears that plague all of us. . . . Our insatiable need to tune into information–at the expense of savoring our downtime–is a form of ‘work’ that we do to reassure ourselves.”

But if you can break free and find activities that both rejuvenate and excite you, you’ll be in a better position to do your best work.

Here’s a few ideas of strategies and places you can explore when finding your own version of deliberate rest:

Be unreachable

Busywork is the enemy of deliberate rest. And the more available you are to requests, emails, and messages, the more likely you’ll be to give up on your resting time.

As Scott Belsky writes in his essay, What happened to downtime?

“Back in the day when the TV became a staple of every American home, parents started mandating time for their children to read. ‘TV time’ became a controlled endeavor because, otherwise, it would consume every waking moment. Now, every waking moment is ‘connected time,’ and we need to start controlling it. We need some rules.”

For Neil Pasricha, best-selling author of The Happiness Equation, he finds deliberate rest in what he calls untouchable days—24 hours where he is completely unreachable and free to explore whatever hobby, project, or work he wants to:

“Untouchable Days have become my secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how I complete my most creative and rewarding work. To share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words. On these days, I’m 10 times more productive.”

A day a month might seem impossible given your daily schedule. Which is why Neil suggests scheduling them far in advance (his are booked at least 16 weeks ahead). This way, you know it’s not interrupting other scheduled tasks, and it’s locked in and non-negotiable.

Focus on the important, yet non-urgent tasks on your list

Meaningful careers are built on important, yet non-urgent tasks. Things like exploring new skills, finishing side projects, or sharing your work and engaging with your community. Unfortunately, those things are usually the first to go when the stress of work comes down.

Deliberate rest offers you an opportunity to catch up on these tasks that are meaningful, yet easily shoved aside.

As Jaideep Bensal, writes on the World Economic Forum:

“What we need to understand is that when working in any company, we need to think long-term. A timely break has the potential to rejuvenate and inspire us. Once back with a clear mind, we can see the path forward and further engage as a more productive resource.”

The stress of the workplace doesn’t lend itself to long-term thinking. But during deliberate rest, you can let go, relax, and find space to explore. According to Rest author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang:

“The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions. And then once it has arrived at one that looks promising, that is what pops into your head as an Aha! Moment.”

Deliberate rest doesn’t just have to be work-related, either. We all have plenty of important yet not urgent things on our life to-do lists that will help us feel accomplished and productive.

Connect with people you’ve been meaning to

Humans are social creatures. Yet when we feel exhausted after a long day of work, we often want to recharge in isolation. And while it might feel good to hide away from time to time, it’s not the best way to refuel our creativity, happiness, and motivation.

In a number of studies, Oscar Ybarra of the University of Michigan found that people who engaged in social interaction showed higher levels of cognitive performance:

“Social interaction helps to exercise people’s minds… As people engage socially and mentally with others, they receive relatively immediate cognitive boosts.”

This doesn’t mean that you should pick up the phone or go out with friends during all periods of rest. (In fact, new studies have proven that both introverts and extroverts get drained when they have to talk to too many people). But simply that a  conversation with someone who makes you feel good can give you a cognitive boost you can carry with you.

A meaningful career is a marathon. Not a sprint.

When it comes down to it, deliberate rest is simply what its name implies: Being just as purposeful about what you do when you’re not working as when you are.

As Soojung-Kim Pang explains:

“When you learn how to balance work and rest, you can sustain a higher level of productivity and creativity.”

Building a meaningful career isn’t a sprint. It’s a lifelong journey. And the only shortcut towards your long term goals is to take breaks, rest when needed, and explore what motivates you. Not what distracts you.

Do you use some form of deliberate rest? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

6 comments

  1. Did you know that the over 1,000-year-old Rule of St. Benedict encourages pretty much the same thing — balancing work with leisure?

    1. I didn’t! But that’s very interesting. It seems like this is something we’ve been struggling with for a long time.

  2. I find having time for non-urgent tasks is crucial. One way I manage this on a daily basis is simply closing my email when I’m learning a new skill or focusing on tasks that deliver more value. I’ll check in on my email once I’ve reached a good place to take a break. I’m more productive as a result and my skill set continues to improve.

    1. That’s a great strategy Ryan. And one that I try to use myself. I think what it comes down to is being dedicated to that time period (whatever it is) where you’re dealing with non-urgent tasks. It’s so easy to slip back into reactive mode even though we know it’s not good for us in the long term.

  3. For the last few months as I got busier with work and life, I was trying to find the words to explain how being a Girl Guide leader and on the local Girl Guide area council helped me recharge from work (as teaching 20 pre-teens leadership and life skills for 1.5 hours a week isn’t necessarily “restful”), but as soon as I read that deliberate rest is “finding activities that let you recharge from your workday, while still being mentally productive,” I realized that’s exactly what it is for me! Wow great article 🙂

    1. That’s great to hear Anne! Glad you found it interesting. It sounds like you have the perfect “deliberate rest” activity.

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