When you like what you do and care about doing it well, it’s easy to get caught in cycles. It’s easy to not stop working, and to feel like that’s the right thing to do. And it’s fun, instead, to go in the other direction, and to look for ways to optimize and supplement and extend our productivity, and instead of taking a break just…keep going.
If you sometimes forget to stop or feel like you don’t want to stop, you’re lucky. It’s a good thing. If you’re lucky enough to have developed a strong and resilient work routine, that’s an achievement. But many of us that like to work and hack our productivity often miss out on maybe the most overlooked key to productivity we have: pausing every once in a while to rest.
You can’t keep going forever. Every hour you push past eight, ten, or twelve, begins to produce diminishing returns. The same goes for every six-or-seven day week in a row. Try stacking five of those without stopping and not having a breakdown of some kind. And rest has been proven in countless studies to be a powerful productivity booster.
So, you need to rest. Here are some ideas on how to get the most out of a day off.
It’s harder now with the lines blurred
Days off used to be meaningful for us. We appreciated them, and took the time to truly experience them. It used to be a big deal to not leave the house, and to do whatever you wanted for a day.
Then, it became cool to work on the weekends. Then, it became aspirational. Elon Musk and other successful figures like him would claim to work over 100 hours a week, and wannabes like us would think it smart to try and emulate them. 100 hours is slightly less scary when divided by 7 than when divided by 5. And at first, it was a pretty compelling experience. You have more time to work, and you get more done. You feel, in some ways, like you’re “better” than other people who just quit and go home at 5pm on Friday. You feel like you cracked some code. But then, lines blur. You forget what a balanced life even looks like. Your mindset and perspective can start to melt a little bit, and the exhaustion can make you lose sight of the road in front of you. And all of that was before the pandemic.
In these new recent times, the line between rest and work, and the spaces in which we do them, are blurred like never before. Productive time feels like it’s constantly bleeding focus, to moments distracted by our phone, or email, or noises around the house. Rest time is often spent with activities that rev our brains up and open our eyes wider – sharp bursts of serotonin, quickly refreshing. Loud noises. Bright light.
Many have reported even struggling to sit and watch full movies or episodes of TV. After all, there’s nothing to scroll on and make it so you see something completely different every 2 or 3 seconds. And it’s even harder if you’re one of those who have desks and computers in their bedrooms right next to your bed. It’s already difficult to differentiate your “work” and “play” brain spaces from each other in the same house, let alone the same room.
Thoughtfulness and intention
So we productivity warriors have a new need: a thoughtfully and intentionally designed break in the noise.
That’s right – even in designing your rest days, there’s a degree of diligence required. That doesn’t mean whipping out the Google Calendar and setting it to push notification you to “take a relaxing bath” at 3:15pm. But it does mean setting a clear-eyed expectation of sorts for how your day is going to go, and doing your best to make sure it happens.
First, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Are you sore? Mentally wiped? Emotionally depleted? Just generically “tired”?
Simply, what do you need right now? To see a friend, or to see absolutely no one? Full-on physical rest, or would a chill game of golf or something actually be nice? Also, take note of your current capacity, or what I call my fuel tank. If you needed to work again in 8-12 hours, could you? If not, how much time would you want ideally to refuel? Try to adjust the scales of your activity today to get as close to equilibrium as possible.
What activities feel like they drain life-force from you? What makes you feel more energetic? Your answers here may feel counter-productive. Your phone probably makes you feel worse a lot of the time. And you probably wouldn’t think that a brisk run might actually makes you feel more lively.
But again, you know you best. If it was an especially hard week, physically or mentally, you might get the best results from truly couch potato-ing and turning your brain off. And you probably don’t need an instruction manual for something like that.
If you can, try to keep the octane of your media consumption low. Put on something long and luxurious and get lost in it. Let it play out. Don’t mainline 45-second Youtube videos that keep loading endlessly. That feels like the normal everyday brain-fizzling activity that we’re trying to avoid here.
Any expert would also recommend airplane mode and blue-light filtering mode and putting your devices in another room on your rest day. Studies and anecdotal accounts agree: it’s definitely difficult, but your mind starts to stop racing and slow down almost immediately. But everyone is different. If you truly feel more at ease and comfortable glued to your phone, I get it. You just have to be honest with yourself.
Back to you people that have work desks in your bedroom. Do your best to establish a cut-off from the time you spend there, and the areas of your brain you engage with there, depending on the time of day. Block that thing off with police tape if you have to. If you’re one of those fancy people with color-changing lights, ascribe a few colors to work-only, and others to play. It might sound dumb, but our brains can be simple sometimes.
Step by step
Okay, let’s break it down to actionable steps. Say you have a blank 24-hours in front of you. Let’s try to plan your day.
Step One: Sleep. Sleep until you wake up. Don’t worry about your circadian rhythm, at least for today. You have sleep debt you don’t even know you have. And at the very least you likely haven’t been able to experience the joy of an alarm-less wakeup in some time. If you can afford to, and you’d like to, try your phone on airplane mode or Do Not Disturb while you sleep. Try to leave it on as long as you can once you’re awake. By doing this you save yourself from your daily barrage of absolutely useless mind-melting push notifications first thing in the morning. Allow yourself to start the day in your own world, at your own pace, without external stimuli. Lay in bed as long as you want. Sit and think about the day in front of you, and all the pleasurable and dumb activities you could fill it with.
Step Two: The fun part. We’re going to eat what we want and watch what we want and sit around.
Do you like coffee? Push the button on your Keurig. What’s your favorite food in the world? Order in. You can handle the $40 charge this one time. It’s cliche, but it’s also true: you deserve it. Do it twice today if you want.
What show makes you feel the most at ease? We’re not looking for that complicated artsy show everyone keeps telling you to watch here – we actually want the opposite. 90 Day Fiance. The Office Season 5 for the 100th time. Do it! Who are you trying to impress? You don’t need to be special or unique or creative with your choices today. You need to do whatever you want.
Step Three: Fill your day with some activity. You can break these down into different categories, depending on what you need.
Check in, again: What kind of pastimes do you value? What do you daydream about doing during the week? What would you do if you could do anything you wanted in this moment?
- Healthy and active
There are people out there that swear by exercise as a thing they actually enjoy electively doing. People that go for a run to feel more alive, or awake, or even relaxed. I personally have played tennis most of my life, and while it’s tiring to play, a quick session on a day off really does feel enriching for my body and soul. I don’t feel like I “wasted” a day’s opportunity to not be tired, or whatever. Maybe you feel similarly about basketball, or skating. If you’re not beat from work, it might be worth a try.
- Brain off
But if you’re committed to being in the house for all of today, you have an equally wide gamut of choices before you. What kind of relaxing activities have you been putting off because they maybe require more than an hour, or more attention than you have to give them during the week? Marathon session of a video game? Intensive recipe? Mainlining the director’s cut of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy is a popular option for the so-inclined.
- Treat yourself
Of course, there’s always the classic self-care category: a bath, maybe with epsom salts. If you’re a beauty and skincare type of person, face-masks. Nail polish. Toners and moisturizers. Essential oil diffusers and chill music – design a little universe of chill for yourself. Go stereotypical with it. Be obnoxious about it, even. Stop just short of the cucumbers on the eyes. There’s nothing stopping you. Dinnertime is probably coming soon. Why not order in one more time? Get dessert.
- The right thing for you
Many I’ve spoken to have described a process of kind of freely letting the day unfold before them. They might even go through a couple of weekday routines like preparing a cup of coffee or going on a run – not because they have to, but because they want to. They’ll do things like “put a show on” and see where it takes them. Maybe they watch six episodes without blinking. Maybe they get up after 10 minutes to take a walk. The point is there isn’t any pressure or expectation on what happens. In fact, nothing actually has to happen. There’s no way to judge a day like this other than how you felt. So, find what is important to you and healthy for your mind.
For example, I love cooking and baking. I know how to make exactly nine dishes, but I’m a master at them. My favorite is chocolate chip cookies, using this recipe from Bon Appetit. I’ve done it so many times now that I’ve memorized it, even down to oven pre-heating and dough resting times. But it’s active enough that it requires almost my full attention to execute. I turn my brain all the way off. I work with my hands, but I’m doing something simple, and when I’m done with various stages I get to taste delicious things. And there’s no pressure. I’m not trying to become a professional baker, and I’m not even under deadline to bake 300 cookies for the bake sale on Sunday or whatever. It’s just a thing I’m doing.
That’s the kind of nourishing activity you should look for. It’s about the simple pleasures, and things that come naturally. The only thing to remember is to do everything at your pace, and as leisurely as you like to. There are no time limits or quality metrics to hit.
Step Four: Finish out the day. How much time do you have left?
You can try an active but inactive excursion like wandering around a shopping center or a downtown area, maybe even as the sun sets. In New York, I used to walk between different neighborhoods and wander into pizza shops and movie theaters. You never know what you might see, and the feeling of walking anywhere on a whim just feels light and freeing.
But the most joyfully decadently relaxing option available to you is also the simplest: just stay in bed. There is no reason not to. Not today. Bring your laptop in there if you like. My personal favorite position is laying straight back like I’m sleeping, and holding my laptop over my head, resting it on my forearms. You can maintain perfect posture and back health, and there’s a huge screen right in front of your face. Your hand rests conveniently over the trackpad. It’s a game changer. Deeply restful. Also, while you’re in bed, try the number one top-rated day off activity: a nap.
As you round the corner on your day, hopefully you feel at least a little bit rejuvenated. Don’t measure the day in any numbers: episodes watched, or meals eaten, or hours doing an activity. Just try to frame it in how you feel, physically and mentally.
Don’t worry about tomorrow
There’s one last step: Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t even think about it, in fact.
As the day winds up, you might feel an inclination to prepare for or otherwise get a jump start on the next day by checking email, or making a calendar or to-do list. Don’t do that. Not today, at least. The version of a perfect Day Off that most speaks to me as a truly is one where I simply do not think of work for the entire day. It’s a closed loop. An outlier in an otherwise productive life. It’s going to be okay in the morning. You haven’t missed anything that important. It was your day off, after all.
Good job today. See you at work tomorrow.