Why you need to change your beliefs about rest

What if I told you that there is something you could do that would lead to weight loss, improved creativity, and better performance – if only you could get over your guilt and let yourself do it?

I only came to this discovery through a recent session with my therapist (which I highly recommend getting, because an objective listening ear is an invaluable resource in life):

Me: I feel like a lump on a log.
Therapist: Why is that?
Me: I haven’t done anything this morning and it’s already 11AM. I should have responded to work emails. I should have researched those real estate questions for my parents. I should have at least gone on a run.
Therapist: How does that make you feel? (typical therapist question)
Me: I hate wasting time. I feel bad. I’m actually rather angry at myself for not being more productive.
Therapist: What would it feel like if you told yourself: “I needed the rest, this is good for me.”
Me: I don’t believe it. I don’t have time to rest.
Therapist: But what if you could believe it? How would it change things?
Me: What if I believed that rest was actually good for me, and I let myself do it?
<silence>
Me: …I think I would be a lot happier.

So at this point, I recognize that my inability to give myself any downtime is causing me unnecessary stress. The self-beratement I experience for “wasting time” is neither helpful to my life nor fun for anyone around me. I blame this on the fact that I was parented by a Chinese tiger-mom.

But, hasn’t my productive drive lead to much success in my life? If I let myself rest, won’t I lose my edge?

As it turns out, quite the opposite is true.

I did a bit of research and it turns out that real rest (versus mere distraction, like TV or People magazine or a glass of wine) has all kinds of benefits that can make you even more productive and help you live a fuller life, which ultimately is my end goal. What is real rest? While distractions seek to temporarily tune out life, real rest turns inward and anchors your awareness on the present.

Top 3 benefits of letting yourself get rest:

1. It stops you from resorting to unhealthy distractions to get a break: How often do you get up from your desk for a coffee or a pastry to avoid dealing with an unpleasant task? I’m pretty sure that this is a leading cause of my prediabetes. We need breaks, but because we’re not willing to allow ourselves to close our laptop without having another task to go to, we end up distracting ourselves with bad food, frivolous errands, and mindless Facebook browsing. If you just give yourself permission to rest for a few minutes whenever the desire to procrastinate comes a-knocking, you may find that you end up skinnier and wasting less time.

2. It restores you to perform at much higher levels, so you can achieve even more: In the must-read book The Art of Learning, chess champion Josh Waitzkin talks about the importance of pulsing between stress and recovery in order to achieve peak performance. Josh would use all kinds of techniques to relax between matches – stretching, deep breathing, play, washing his face. He writes, “By conditioning ourselves to move fluidly between intervals of tension and serenity…we become more able to rally our powers of intuition and creativity and call on our knowledge and skills at a moment’s notice.”

3. It facilitates insights and breakthroughs that only come when you step away from the problem: This one is really counterintuitive to me because my tiger-mom upbringing says that when I face a tough problem, the only way to solve it is by grinding through and not giving up. There’s no doubt that grit is critical for success (as proved in this TED talk by a Chinese-American psychologist), but there’s a difference between staying committed and bashing your head against the wall. Taking a break doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It just means you are giving yourself a chance to step away and find another perspective. I love this quote from essayist Tim Kreider: “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Okay all this is great, but how do you actually rest? This sounds like a silly question, but when I tried to think of an answer I drew a complete blank. The last time I could remember experiencing rest was at a spa day with my wife one year ago. This made me realize that I have a serious case of rest deficit. I turned to the internet and searched for “how to rest” for some ideas, and I found all kinds of advice from “go walk a labyrinth” to “try laugh yoga.”

I settled on experimenting with these 5 strategies that appealed most to me:

1. Have a private listening party: Listening to music with your full attention, as if you were at a concert, has been scientifically proven to bring all kinds of well-being benefits. Last night after dinner, the wifey and I set some mood lighting, snuggled up on our couch and listened to a Krishna Das album (we figured if we’re trying for rest, we may as well go for some mellow yogic chanting, but I’m sure this will work just as well with ‘regular’ music that you enjoy). I can’t remember the last time I just listened to music without doing something else, so it was quite a novel experience. And with a partner, it can be quite romantic as well.

2. Do an activity that brings you into “flow”: When you’re completely involved in an activity for its own sake, you are in a state of flow. Getting to flow takes effort, which seems at odds with rest, but when you’re in flow you forget yourself and begin to act effortlessly with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now. I plan to explore this topic more in a later post, but for now I’m trying a couple of activities that I think might get me flowing: Playing guitar, going on a run and writing this blog post. Results vary, but I intend to experiment until I find an activity that can regularly get me there.

3. Get a massage or take a bath: This one’s an easy sell. Yet, how often do these things fall off your list of priorities when the to-do’s stack up? I’m back on my once-a-month regimen of massages, and I’m committing to more bath time in 2015.

4. Practice yoga and meditation: I already have a (relatively) regular practice of yoga and meditation. But to be honest, I’m not sure how restful they are. Most of the time, I’m struggling to keep my brain from wandering off into the wild blue yonder. A couple of tips that I’m trying out to stay more present: Take a deep breath. Feel every pose from head to toe. Focus on the small movements. And above all – be compassionate on yourself.

And above all, the most important strategy for getting rest:

5. Change your beliefs about rest: What is it about your beliefs that’s stopping you from closing the laptop and taking a break? For me, it comes down to self judgement. If I’m not striving and achieving, who am I then? If I’m not moving forward, where would I be? I’m afraid that if I sit with myself in the now, I might be sorely disappointed. The relentless inner critic mutters in my ear: I should be better; I should have done more. To combat the self-judgement, I’ve started repeating this mantra to myself: I am enough. I do enough. I have enough.

I’ll admit that this is extremely difficult for me. But what if I could truly believe that I’m good enough just as I am now?

…I think I would be a lot happier.

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