Work-life balance is so 1995. Ask the modern executive what their balance (or worse, blend) is and they’ll tell you it’s a false dichotomy. Work is part of life, duh.
It would be wrong to see the concept as irrelevant, however. Clearly it still matters what role work plays within your life, and you can’t understand that without knowing what you’re sacrificing with every extra hour’s slog at the office: the opposite of work is not life, but rest.
It may sound semantic, but the difference between work-life and work-rest is an important one. Far more so than life, rest has connotations of laziness in our workaholic culture. To a lot of people, time spent resting is wasted time – but they are wrong.
Rest is overdue a change in image. It was long associated with substantial, positive benefits that are only now being rediscovered through neuroscience and psychology.
1. Rest makes you more productive
‘The balance between work and rest tends to be disregarded because of thinking that says the more you work, the more you achieve,’ says business change consultant Chris Pearse. But as he points out, this clearly isn’t true. Economists will tell you that productivity declines after around 20 hours a week. Partly this is because the more valuable things get done first, but partly it’s because we just run out of mental energy.
Indeed, various forms of rest serve different functions that can improve the quality of our work. Sleep, for instance, doesn’t just keep you alive. If you needed another reason to get an extra 40 winks, it also prevents the productivity-sapping errors and impaired judgement that tiredness brings.
Having a few 5pm drinks down the pub with your colleagues may seem like knocking off early, meanwhile, but it will help you build the relationships that make organisations run smoothly. Even those long, lazy TV Sundays can serve a purpose: by helping you recover from the stress of your job, it can help protect your mental health.
Pearse is particularly keen on what he calls conscious rest - that is, the form of rest that involves focusing on undemanding, repetitive tasks. Mindfulness, meditation, prayer, cooking and actively listening to music all fall into this category.
‘This kind of rest can be extremely powerful for some people. It can reduce the amount of sleep they need, and it helps the focus and efficiency of their work phase,’ he says.
2. Rest makes you more creative
Have you ever worked at a problem, toiling away for days to no avail, only for the solution to drop into your lap while you’re in the shower or staring out of the train window? Or ever sat down and tried to have a great idea, only for it to emerge fully formed while you’re cleaning the sink?
We look at that as being some kind of divine inspiration, but there’s a long history of associating rest with deep thinking. ‘In ancient and medieval Europe, philosophers argued that the exercise of pure reason was not enough to make sense of the world,’ writes Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his book Rest: Why you can get more done when you work less.
Knowledge, Pang says, was considered to come from a combination of ratio (logical and discursive methods) and intellectus (contemplative practices and attitudes). These days, we’re big on the former but short on the latter.
Yet consider some of history’s great thinkers, from Newton in his orchard to Crick and Watson figuring out DNA in a Cambridge pub, and you’ll find less is often more when it comes to great ideas.
There’s modern science behind this too. Neuroscientists now know that the resting brain is not inactive. Instead, when you stop focusing on a conscious task, it merely activates a different part of the brain, the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is heavily associated with creativity, making sense of memories and preparing for future problems.
'The DMNs of creative people have stronger connections between areas associated with functional abilities like verbal acuity, visual skill and memory, connections that allow their brains to keep working on problems while in the resting state,' Pang says.
3. Rest makes life more meaningful
‘If work generates achievement, it's rest that's responsible for meaning,’ says Pearse. A lot of people would say that their work – the challenge, the common struggle, the achievement – gives their life meaning. A lot of other people find it in family, friends, travel, volunteering or hobbies.
Here more than anywhere else, our individuality comes into it: meaning is a very personal thing.
But if nothing else, rest gives you the time and context to make sense of your work. Climbing a mountain is a great, meaningful achievement, but few would labour to reach the summit and then not allow themselves a few moments to enjoy the view.
Unfortunately, few of us work in environments where taking time to enjoy the view for the sake of ‘meaning’ is openly acceptable. For all the talk of liberated organisations and empowered workforces, mostly there is still an expectation to be seen to be working, especially when the company’s under pressure.
It’s a hard sell, telling your manager that you’ll be more productive and more creative if you take two- hour mid-afternoon naps and leave meetings for impromptu daydreaming sessions. But ultimately those organisations that understand the intrinsic value of rest will get more out of their employees – and those employees will get more out of work and life. So take it easy.
Image credit: Joakim Bendes/Wikipedia