“The greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.” — Leonardo da Vinci
Rest is a skill that most of us must learn
By now, we all know how important it is to take time off. We are aware that for good performance and well-being, getting sufficient rest is as important as a healthy diet, exercise and sleep. Yet, the number of people suffering from burnout and chronic stress is on the rise. How is this even possible?
Burnout — Feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion, due to stress from working with people under difficult or demanding conditions. Burnout is followed by signs such as chronic fatigue, quickness to anger and suspicion, and susceptibility to colds, headaches, and fevers — BusinessDictionary
According to a recent Gallup study, “23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. That means about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job.”
These are the stats for full-time employees — what about self-employed?
There is not so much data on how burnout and chronic stress affect freelancers or entrepreneurs. So far, I found this study suggesting that the self-employed report significantly higher overall burnout and emotional exhaustion than the organization-employed. But scientific data aside, I can just speak from my experience of having been a freelance writer for over two years.
Working on your own gig makes you more prone to burnout — mainly because it makes it harder to rest. It is easy to get lost in the work you love and depend on for building your own business or brand. It is always tempting to check one more task off of your to-do list, even though you’re exhausted. It is also tricky to detach yourself from your work psychologically (i.e. stop thinking about it), which is key to good quality rest.
Under these circumstances, I came to see rest as a skill — rather than some kind of a default state we automatically enter whenever we stop working. Because for those grinding on their own, the default mode is usually… well, work.
This means that it takes deliberate effort to learn how to rest well.
Why do we have trouble resting?
I realized that the secret to getting the rest I need as a freelance writer is in the mindset I adopt, rather than in simply “carving out free time.” It is not merely a matter of having the time to rest — but the question of how I experience this time.
When I first started freelancing, it was challenging for me to enter the “rest state” whenever I wanted or needed to. I used to get paranoid about my work. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, because I was planning some new exciting project and it seemed impossible for my mind to stop. The result would usually be anxiety because I never seemed to be doing enough.
But let’s face it: as a freelancer or entrepreneur, there’s always more you could do to improve your skill or career.
One of these additional “things” to do is sometimes… rest. Our schedules are so full of both professional and personal goals and commitments that the rest time we have at our disposal shrinks dramatically. And because it is so scarce, it also becomes ever more precious. So we feel pressured to rest well, “efficiently” and — preferably — fast.
This is where the core of the problem lies: we treat rest as yet another goal. And obviously, that undermines the very purpose of it.
How often have you found yourself deciding to go out for a run as a way to “rest” — but really, to catch up on your fitness goals? Or settling with a book to “relax” — while in reality, your primary goal was to learn something useful?
I do it. All. The. Time.
And while it is not a bad thing to benefit from your rest in those “bonus” ways — it is your motivation that really counts.
When you do something out of a motivation to achieve a goal, chances are you are not really resting. Only when your primary motivation is to relax and recover your strengths, be good to yourself and let go of a specific outcome are you giving yourself an opportunity to genuinely rest.
But why do we find it so damn difficult?
The achievement-glorifying culture we live in is one reason. It encourages the kind of mindset that obviously stands in our way to let go of control and truly relax. There is always the underlying pressure that we should do more. But the stress and anxiety we experience as a consequence also “physically interfere with the body’s relaxation mechanisms.”
We enter a loop in which the less we relax, the harder we find it to relax. For entrepreneurs and self-employed, that loop is often even harder to escape because of putting various conditions on our rest. For example, we may believe that we only “deserve” rest after we arrive at a specific work outcome. And if we continuously overshoot our capabilities with our goal-setting, we may never see ourselves as “deserving of rest.”
This brings us to the initial point that the secret to rest well is in our mindset, rather than in simply finding the time. But in order to put ourselves in the “resting mode”, we first need to know how it even looks like.
The three main components of a resting mindset
1. The psychological detachment from work.
Sabine Sonnentag who coined this term refers to psychological detachment from work as “a state in which people mentally disconnect from work and do not think about job-related issues when they are away from their job.” It is exactly what we talk about when we mention “taking our minds off work.”
This can be especially tricky for the self-employed and entrepreneurs because they often work on passion projects and things they genuinely care about. When it is so much more than just a job, we may have a hard time trying to cease thinking about it.
Yet, researchers like Sabine Sonnentag or Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (the author of Rest) state it clearly: it is crucial to detach from the subject of your work on a regular basis. The benefits of this are two-fold.
For one thing, it simply allows you to rest well and fully. Detachment from work during off-hours is correlated with experiencing less emotional exhaustion and higher overall life satisfaction. But being able to take your mind off your job also benefits the work itself.
It is a well-known phenomenon that when we stop trying to solve a problem by actively thinking about it, our unconscious gets to process it. As a result, the best ideas often pop into our heads while we’re taking a shower or folding laundry.
2. Letting go of the “achievement” mode.
This requires a mindset shift that most of us are not used to making. From a very early age, we are taught that whatever we engage in, it should serve some bigger purpose. This goal-oriented mentality is precisely what we need to drop to enter a state of genuine rest.
This means that you can’t treat your time off as just another chore. You don’t go for a walk in order to hit your daily count of 10k steps. You don’t invite friends over for dinner just so you can catch up with your social obligations or because it is “your turn” to host a party. Even clinging to the goal of feeling “relaxed” can stand in your way to rest.
When all you can think of is: ”I must relax, relax now, come on, why is the tension still there” — the result is usually quite the opposite.
This sounds a bit paradoxical, but if you want to enter the resting mindset, you do best to let go of the goal-oriented mentality. And that includes approaching “feeling rested” as an achievement.
3. Enjoying yourself.
This may seem so obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning. But I think there is a little trap here.
We assume that we know which activities bring us joy — to the point that we don’t question them anymore. We may start identifying with our favourite ways of resting as if they never change. For example, I may refer to myself as a “book worm”, which indicates that reading books is what I love doing under any circumstances. If the need for rest arises, I will resort to reading mindlessly, without even questioning whether this is what I would enjoy at the moment.
Have you ever found yourself sitting down with a book with the idea that you will now delight in the reading experience, only to discover that your eyes start closing after 5 minutes? If you have, then you probably understand that sometimes the activities that seem enjoyable as a concept end up being a pain when we actually do them.
I think that many of us (including myself) are often mindless when choosing our rest activities. We navigate our rest according to our routine ways of thinking because we don’t recognise what our mind and body actually need right now.
How to dramatically improve the quality of your rest
It often happens to me that I enter an illusion of rest — but actually, I miss one of the crucial components of the resting mindset.
For example, I like to go for a walk in the middle of a writing day as a means to give myself a break. But rarely am I able to detach myself from work during that time. Usually, my mind keeps processing article ideas and topics. I find it very hard to take my mind off work, knowing that I am coming back to it shortly.
Sitting at my desk after I come home, I recognize that my walk was not the kind of deliberate rest that allows me to decompress. It was rather a different, less structured kind of work — but still, work. Once I acknowledge this, I can set an intention to dedicate time to rest later on.
Good rest has to be intentional. I have dropped the idea that it will just “happen somehow” during my freelancing day. It will not. Unless I consciously take a decision as to when and how I want to take a break, I am simply not getting it.
That’s because the work I have set myself out to do has no end. There is always another article waiting to be written. An improvement to make on my website. An email to write, a meeting to attend, a skill to hone.
There is always room to grow — which is awesome on one hand, but a threat to my peace of mind on the other.
Good quality rest is also about coming to peace with the fact that I can’t do everything all at once. There is a limit to how many words I can put out daily or for how long I am able to focus. Letting go of perfection and appreciating myself for what I do — rather than focusing on what’s missing — is a prerequisite to even make an attempt to relax.
Below are other tips I have for you to dramatically improve the quality of your rest.
Define work and non-work activities.
This is often tricky for freelancers, entrepreneurs and creatives. I know it is for me. Our work is usually so intertwined with our lives that it may be hard to determine whether you are reading a book or watching a video for pure pleasure — or because you are hoping that it will somehow benefit your work.
Same goes for writing emails (“is this private or professional communication?”), journaling (“is it self-care or a productivity tool?”) and a myriad of other things. It can be really hard to tell what’s work and what isn’t. But I insist that being able to differentiate between the two is an important component of good rest.
Consider the timing.
It is not necessarily about planning a strict “resting schedule.” I am a big fan of going with the flow and resting whenever I find it necessary/useful. Having said this, I think it is helpful to take your lifestyle into consideration — and to know at what point of your day or week you may get a chance to rest.
Resting opportunities may vary greatly depending on whether you are a single mom building a lifestyle business from home, or a start-up founder pitching to investors. It is useful to know how you can realistically fit rest into your schedule. Is it going to be numerous five-minute breaks over the course of a day? Or a longer period during lunchtime hour when your baby is asleep?
When you know where your best opportunities for rest are, you are more likely to seize them.
Grant yourself unconditional permission to rest.
This requires some inner work and positive self-talk. You may also reach out for external psychological or coaching support if you really struggle here.
However you do it, the important part is to grant yourself a certain amount of rest that is not dependant on your work outcomes. In other words, you can’t afford to postpone rest until you achieve some preconceived goal. This is exactly the approach that leads so many people to burnout.
Avoid this kind of thinking. You deserve decent rest in the same way as you deserve nutritious food and good night’s sleep. The relaxed mind and body are a prerequisite to fruitful work — and not the other way around.
Choose your rest activities in advance.
I found it quite useful to have a go-to list of ideas for how to spend my rest time. With this, whenever I find myself in need of a break, I have a selection of activities to choose from.
As we said before, it is not about mindlessly following routine ideas of what good rest means to you. This may vary from day to day (or even from moment to moment) and so the decision as to how to spend your break should be taken in the moment. But if, in this moment, you already have an array of options to choose from, it makes the decision way easier.
Keep in mind that they don’t have to be any special or elaborate activities. They may even be ordinary chores, as long as you enjoy doing them — such as tidying up your desk or raking leaves. Sometimes, such mundane activities can even make it easier to relax, as the outcomes they lead to are more straightforward— and hence, you don’t obsess over them so much.
Make a transition from working to resting mode.
This one is useful to help you to psychologically detach from your work. All too often, we try to jump from one activity to the next, without ever consciously noticing the change. As a result, we often drag the mindset from work into what was supposed to be our downtime.
The transition from work to rest may be as simple as sitting down and becoming aware of your body. Spending 30 seconds on a gratitude practice of your choice. Acknowledging yourself for what you’ve done and formulating an intention to rest. Changing your clothes to more comfy ones.
Whatever you do, if you can make your mind consciously notice the moment of transition — it will help you to decompress during your rest time.
Let go of the “achievement mode.”
That’s by far the most difficult one for me. I have the deeply ingrained idea that whatever I do in my rest time should also benefit other areas of my life. And that’s exactly what sometimes forces me to read a book — instead of taking the much-needed nap.
I figured that letting go of the achievement mode is a process that needs to happen gradually. You can practice it and become better at it over time.
If you find it impossible to let go of the idea that your rest should be “productive” — start with turning your “achievement mode” volume down, rather than switching it off completely. Example: instead of going for a run as a means to both rest and work on your fitness — try taking a walk. Instead of reading ambitious non-fiction books that tire you rather than help you unwind — find more entertaining, light pieces on Medium.
By lowering the intensity of your rest activities, you will gradually ease into the mode of enjoying the moment — rather than trying to accomplish something.
I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t mention mindfulness in the context of rest! But I don’t want to talk about meditation or “heightened awareness.” In this case, it is about the more practical dimension of everyday mindfulness.
The accent here is on being sensitive to the diversity of your experience. This is the approach Ellen Langer proposes when she encourages mindfulness in one very simple sentence:
“All you need to do is actively notice new things.”
How does that contribute to the quality of your rest? By being more mindful to the variations in your experience, you simply start making better choices as to how you spend your time.
First of all, you become more competent in picking the activities that will best serve you in any given moment. By being more attuned to your body and mind, you are also able to identify the first signals of tiredness — rather than waiting until you crash or burn out. You take time to rest sooner than later.
Ultimately, you enjoy your rest time more — because you experience it with full consciousness. And that’s dramatically different than treating it as yet another task on your to-do list.