The best ways of resting: From daily walks to engaging hobbies
Learning the art of rest and relaxation can make us work better and improve performance
If someone sighs and tells you they are far too busy to deal with you at the moment, the chances are they are not so much apologising as quietly boasting about their hectic work schedule.
For the modern employee tends to treat overwork as a badge of honour – an attitude that spills over into our social lives, according to Dr Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, who believes this is a big mistake.
“We’re updating and checking Facebook with the same degree of urgency and performance that we have in our working lives,” he warns.
And the result is that we have forgotten the importance of rest and relaxation.
Alex, a former Silicon Valley technology consultant who once worked 60-hour weeks, is a convert to resting after spending two years researching why it is crucial for health and happiness.
“Rest isn’t just the absence of work – a nothingness,” he said during a visit to the UK. “It’s something we have to choose to do – to turn off, to resist the lure of busyness.
“The technology we live with promised to allow us to break up those eight hours of work into chunks we could do at our greater convenience – a couple of hours’ work then some time with the kids and to make dinner, then back to work,” he says. “But it doesn’t end up as chunks, it turns into this liquid that spreads into our whole day.”
Which is why we are constantly half-working and never making time for proper, guilt-free switch-off time.
The answer to why rest is so important lies in our brains. Until the development of functional MRI scans, scientists assumed nothing was happening in the resting brain. But scans of people gazing into space revealed their brains worked almost as hard as those solving mathematical equations.
And as soon as people stopped concentrating on one task, different parts of the brain became active – the so-called default mode network. This is a complex network of connections that seems to consolidate, subconsciously mull problems and create solutions.
Studies have shown creative people have better functioning DMNs, as do children with superior reading skills, memory and focus.
Rest gives time to reflect and be calm, deepens our focus and makes us more, rather than less, productive, says Alex, 52, who became fascinated by the idea of rest while working for Microsoft in Cambridge. He worked hard, but there were also long, leisurely lunches and hours spent walking in the Fens.
At the time he was reading about James Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 and learned he and his partner, Francis Crick, spent hours over long lunches in the pub. Watson was often off on holiday to the Alps or to play tennis. Were they successful despite their downtime – or because of it?
Alex began researching other historical heavy hitters and found similar stories. They worked hard in concentrated chunks, usually early in the day, and took rest seriously.
Naturalist Charles Darwin was in his study by 8am daily but considered his work finished by noon and went for a walk followed by a nap. Novelists Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens made time for naps, hobbies and walks, as did Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Sleeping is vital for the growth of new brain cells
“Work and rest are not polar opposites, they are partners,” Alex insists. “Rest is an essential component of good work, but today we’ve lost touch with that wisdom.”
He recommends doing four hours of focused work followed by two hours of deliberate rest. It’s a regime he follows and which has improved his productivity and made him both healthier and happier.
“I wish I’d learned this 10 years ago,” he confesses. “But having learned how to practise this kind of rest I have to say I’ve done more of the work I’ve wanted to do in these last few years than in all the years preceding.”
How to build guilt-free rest into your schedule:
Get up early
Even night owls who think the later it is the more productive they are, work better in the morning. Research shows a solid four hours of work in the morning, followed by a rest, is more productive than late-night cramming or spreading work over 12 hours.
Many high achievers did this. Anthony Trollope got up at 5am to work, architect Frank Lloyd Wright rose at 4am, Charles Dickens was in his study by 9am and finished at noon and thriller writer John le Carré wrote his first three novels during his 90-minute morning commute.
The idea is to get up and get straight into the tasks of the day, working intensively for four hours including a break, says Alex. He gets up at 5am and aims to finish work by lunchtime with a break in the middle to walk his dogs.
“The trick is to prepare as much as possible the night before so I can sleepwalk my way to my desk and start work,” he says. “So I make a list of things I want to achieve the next day, I set up the coffee pot, even put my clothes out.”
The risk of distraction at that time is small, he points out: “At 5am I am so antisocial I have no interest in what’s happening on Facebook and no-one’s awake in the house – not even the dogs – and certainly not my two teenage children.”
For those stuck in an office without that sort of flexibility, getting work done early and in concentrated chunks without distractions still applies, he says.
A daily walk
Studies show walking stimulates creativity, even when it is on a treadmill facing a brick wall, although it is better outside in a green space.
Scientists aren’t yet sure why, but it is thought that walking allows the mind to relax and wander.
Charles Dickens regularly walked 10 or 12 miles a day, composers Beethoven and Tchaikovsky spent hours each afternoon walking in the woods and Apple founder Steve Jobs was famous for his walking meetings.
“No walk is bad,” says Alex, who takes a notebook on his daily outings for jotting down ideas. “But 15 to 20 minutes is enough for your brain to start wandering then come back to the stuff you were thinking about before the walk.”
Get enough sleep
Sleep is the ultimate rest but it isn’t passive. Our brains are working hard consolidating memories, repairing damage and clearing out waste. It is vital for the growth of new brain cells, processing new skills and maintaining the immune system.
Science tells us seven hours sleep is about enough for most people but a daily 20-minute nap can improve memory, help reduce mistakes and boost mental alertness and clarity.
Hobbies not TV
There’s nothing wrong with lounging in front of the TV but it is not as restful in the long term as what psychologists call deep play – a hobby that engages you and uses your skills.
“We do need physical downtimes where we are not demanding a lot of our bodies – absolutely, there’s value in that,” says Alex. “But active rest is more restorative than passive activities and it also enforces a break from work. You can’t answer emails when you’re hanging 30 feet off the ground on a rock face.”
The most psychologically restful hobbies are those that are very different from your normal work, but use similar skills. Many scientists love sailing, which involves problem solving and observational skills, or rock climbing, which needs focus and improvisational techniques.
Alex’s hobbies are hiking and photography and he points to Winston Churchill’s love of painting. “Painting requires clear vision and quick decisions. You need a plan of attack,” he says.