In our busy lives we don’t think much about rest, nor do we regard it as important or interesting.
Rest is something we do if we have time or if we’re not too busy. Rest is simple: it’s inactivity, or a negative space defined by the absence of work. And if we treat overwork as a virtue or sign of ambition, we may even see rest as weakness. But as I argue in my new book Rest: Why We Get More Done When We Work Less, each of these assumptions are incorrect. In fact, some of history’s most creative and prolific people worked far fewer hours than we do, while accomplishing much more.
We should take rest more seriously.
Regular vacations and time off not only improve your health and mood, they help you be more resilient and creative at work. If you exercise a lot, or have a hobby that is physically or mentally challenging, those benefits are even more pronounced. Long hours actually are counterproductive: a team constantly working 70-hour weeks gets less accomplished than one working 40-hour weeks. Chronic overwork also increases your risk of poor heath, depression, heart attacks, and eventually dementia.
Rest can also help you be more creative.
When you let your mind wander, your brain automatically activates a set of regions called the default mode network. When you work hard for a while, then take a break and do something else, the default mode network keeps working on problems that have occupied your conscious mind— and sometimes delivers answers. When you’re trying to remember the name of an actress in a recent movie, and her name comes to you suddenly while you’re doing something else, that’s the default mode at work.
The default mode is also the source of great insights in science and art. Super-creative people will often alternate periods of focused work with long periods of rest to take advantage of the default mode’s ability to solve problems. The most accomplished among them only work for four or five intensive hours, and cultivate hobbies or exercise that give them plenty of time for mind-wandering. Leonardo da Vinci was right when he said, “The greatest geniuses some accomplished more when they worked less.”
Finally, rest can help you live a longer, more creative life.
In particular, people who find “deep play,” activities that are physically and mentally challenging, that offer significant psychological rewards, and provide a much-needed break from work, remain professionally active until late in life. Deep play can even open new opportunities for creative accomplishment: London theatre manager and lawyer Bram Stoker’s hobby of writing fiction, for example, eventually yielded the masterpiece Dracula.
So rest is not work’s competitor, but its partner. The most restorative kinds of rest are active: exercise and engaging hobbies do a better job of recharging our physical and mental batteries than lying on the sofa. Rest is also skill: as creative lives reveal, we can learn to rest in ways that suit our needs and give us insight. In a good life, work and rest support, strengthen, and sustain each other.