Why You Need to Rest to Work Better

On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme.

One leads by calm.

French maxim cited by Clementine Churchill to her husband

I recently read The Splendid and The Vile by Erik Larson, a masterful story-telling of the The Blitz – the nearly year-long bombing of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany during World War 2.

The book places the spotlight on then prime minister Winston Churchill and ties together diary entries, intelligence reports, and cabinet minutes in a colorful portrayal of the man, his family, the government, and the daily decisions it took to win a war.

Though I enjoyed the book’s epic accounts and how it had me gripping my seat wondering what tragedy or miracle would come next, what surprised me the most was Churchill himself. And what astounded me the most about him was his preference for naps, leisurely walks, baths, and good dining – even in the middle of commanding a nation in a World War.

Speaking about Churchill’s time at Chequers, a country estate which he used as a command post away from 10 Downing Street, Larson wrote:

Although he took time out for meals, walks, baths, and his nap, he spent most of the day dictating minutes and discussing the war with his guests.

He took time out. He took time out for all these things even as the man in charge during a global crisis. This line jumped off the page to me because I don’t often take time out.

Chequers, the country house of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

In our version of a global crisis, weekdays are a blur of Zoom meetings, unread e-mails, and tasks, and each minute seems too precious to waste. On the worst days, I could be up by 6:00 AM and call it a day at 9:00 PM – with barely a few breaks in between to feed myself.

And it pains me to write this, but I do feel a small sense of accomplishment having completed “productive” days like this. Because I finished things, I pushed myself, I hustled. Despite that sense of achievement, I know deep down that this hustle is not good for me. I know it because I feel it — it wears me down.

“Hustle culture” isn’t sustainable. And numerous scientific studies point out how overworking can lead to declines in physical health, decrease in concentration, and even depression.

Overworking can also make time seem dizzyingly, worryingly fast

How do we remember to moderate hustle and take time out? For me, the key lies in knowing that rest brings an improved quality in work.

In a study done in North America in 2017, 38% of employees don’t feel encouraged to take a lunch break, worrying that their bosses or fellow employees will feel that they’re not hardworking. But evidence suggests those lunch breaks are important:

…employees who take a lunch break are more likely to be satisfied with their job, and say they are as effective and efficient as they would like to be. This is consistent with other research, which shows that taking breaks from work is important for recovery – and adequate recovery is critical for top performance. Energy isn’t unlimited, and just as athletes have halftime to rest during a game, employees need to rest so they can do their best work. Taking a break in the middle of the day for lunch is a recovery period, allowing employees to come back refreshed and reinvigorated for the second half – as this research clearly shows.

Jennifer Deal, Senior Research Scientist, Center for Effective Organizations, University of Southern California (USC)

It’s not just lunch breaks, too. Environments conducive to rest allow us to tinker more with different ideas, have casual conversations, and possibly come up with better solutions to our problems at work. Going back to Churchill’s Chequers estate, Larson wrote:

The house fostered an easier and more candid exchange of ideas and opinions, encouraged by the simple fact that everyone had left their offices behind and by a wealth of novel opportunities for conversation — climbs up Beacon and Coombe Hills, walks in the rose garden, rounds of croquet, and hands of bezique, further leavened by free-flowing champagne, whiskey, and brandy.

Structured rest or play is even more beneficial. Turning off work mode and turning on a completely different mode – in sports, arts, or another field – is a mark of the highest performers.

Scientists and members of the general public are about equally likely to have artistic hobbies, but scientists inducted into the highest national academic are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation. And those who have won the Nobel Prize are more likely still. Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction. And, again, Nobel laureates are far more likely still.

David Epstein from his book Range

And beyond these facts, what we need to remember is that rest also brings an improved quality in life. With ample time for rest, we’re able to have better relationships, more opportunities to follow our passions, learn and reflect about ourselves, and devote time to spirituality, charity, and service.

Especially with the consequences of today’s pandemic, few have the luxury of a country estate and its trimmings. Or even the privilege of affording a hobby or artistic pursuit. But many of us do have a choice.

When we choose time for rest and play in the days we work, we’re also choosing to be productive. When we choose time for rest and play, we’re choosing to care for ourselves.

A friend once told me that life isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. And if you’re running a marathon that typically lasts 60+ years, you need ways to manage your energy, passion, and drive to go on.

We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, not the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.

Winston Churchill

Churchill, who died at 90 years old, can attest to the need for rest and recreation. By “taking time out”, he had the clarity and motivation to win a war.

If he could take time out, so could you.

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