How To Rest
Doing less to live more
I discovered this painting by David Shrigley after I was ill. It has been a favourite ever since.
I see myself in this sitting elephant. I rampaged from my birth in 1988 to my breakdown in 2017. I got teeth at 12 weeks, walked at 10 months, went from school straight to university, bagged a BA then an MA, an internship then a job, and started my own business. There were no breathers, and always lots of overlap.
It didn’t end well. My breakdown brought with it physical and emotional exhaustion. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t eat, I often couldn’t get out of bed.
When I was first recovering, I thought the aim was to get back to this pace of life. I’d been driving myself at 110mph, crashed and thought with a little dusting off, this momentary wreckage would be on the road, revving back up, full speed ahead.
With time, I realised I never would. This pace was unsafe. To get better and stay well, I needed to teach myself to rest. Regularly.
Diary full, life empty
Why did I need to be so busy? Was I chasing something? More qualifications, more experiences, more company. Or was I running from something? From quiet, from boredom, from being alone. With hindsight, I’m pretty sure it was a bit of both.
The more I packed my diary to the brim, the emptier I felt. I’m now strict with my plans, I say no to things, I keep days clear. By doing less, I can invest more time and energy into the things I do do. They become more thought about, more special, more fulfilling. And in turn, my life feels fuller.
For the first few years of my working life, I felt an invisible chain from my leg to my desk. The team I worked in did have some flexibility, we worked around the studio and around the city. But comments from other teams felt pointed in what was said “you lot are never at your desk” and the unsaid “you can’t be working.” So, if I did want to make a cup of coffee or go on a walk not in my lunch break (heaven forbid), I felt watched and criticised.
I now take pleasure in proper breaks. I make drinks without feeling like I need to check emails as the coffee boils. I can walk without feeling I need to make a call. I can leave my desk and sit on a bench in a park, with minimal fidgeting. I have worked hard to shed the old fashion perception of what a “good worker” looks like. So, when I take a break now, I take one. Away from everything, expect maybe a KitKat.
Take longer breaks
I’ve found it essential to take days and weeks away from business as usual. For years I wore my lack of sick days and very few holiday days as a badge of honour. I was self-congratulatory and smug. So, when I got sick, I was devastated that I couldn’t work. The lack of rest caught up with me and I had to take 8 months off away from my desk. Not the efficiency I was after.
A body needs rest, and I learnt that if you don’t take it regularly, it’ll make you take it all in one-inconvenient-go. Designer Stefan Sagmeister takes a sabbatical every seven years, entrepreneur Bill Gates takes a Think Week every year where he heads to a remote cabin and reads. Other people describe inhale years and exhale years.
I now celebrate the rest and the work, I don’t beat myself up if I have a quieter day, week, month or even year.
Getting good at something needs practice. Rest is no different. I need to prioritise and set aside time to do it.
My mid-afternoons are often just not productive. The biggest lesson of working for myself, working from home and being in control of my own time was to recognise this and plan around it. I needed to learn when not to work, rather than when to work. For many of us it is much easier to do than just be. I had to teach myself to pause. So now I do restful things in the afternoon, away from emails, away from computer and phone screens. This is when I read or listen to podcasts, and it usually ends in 30-mins of good napping. I used to laugh it off as a bit of a joke, an indulgence, but now I know it is essential.
Stop and breathe
Shortly before I totally burnt out, by back went. I spent two days in bed peeing into a protein shaker. It was as bleak as it sounds. It was at the chiropractors that I first heard about breathing like a baby. Through my nose, not my mouth. Four second inhales, eight seconds exhale. Push the breath deeper to the belly, rather than staying short and shallow in the chest. When thoughts are racing or life feels too busy, I concentrate on my breath.
It’s OK to tread water
Before my illness, I was on the academic and career chase. There was no stopping at traffic lights. It was always, what’s next?
I’ve learnt that sometimes treading water isn’t just OK, it’s essential. I’ve learnt that at times I must stay still, with my head bobbing just above the water, catching my breath and reflecting before I take my next stroke.
I’m an early riser and an over-thinker. My body and brain still move fast. I’m naturally all hare and have had to learn to balance that with times of being more tortoise. I have had to acknowledge and accept that prioritising rest was going to be key to not just my recovery, but my ongoing sanity.
How do you rest? I’d love to know.