Take in a deep breath and hold it. Keep holding. How long can you hold your inhale until it gets uncomfortable? Thirty seconds? A few minutes? It doesn’t take long until we all, eventually, need to exhale.
Think of your work ethic as the inhale (it is, in a way, as essential to your career as air is to your body). With a good work ethic, we make, execute, coordinate, manage, fulfill, and get things done. Task list—inhale. Project execution—inhale. Making our ideas come to life—inhale. But we can’t keep inhaling forever. Eventually we have to exhale. This exhale is your rest ethic, and it is just as essential.
A solid rest ethic gifts us inspiration, ideas, and recovery. It allows us to build up our enthusiasm and sustain our passion. Gaining a fresh perspective—exhale. Project ideation and “aha” moments—exhale. Letting big ideas incubate in your mind—exhale. And just as a deep exhale prepares you for a better inhale, your rest ethic enables you to have a better work ethic.
In 2020, in the wake of COVID-19, a lot of people have found themselves with more free time on their hands than ever before, and many have realized the need for a solid rest ethic: Rest is not simply a result of free time. It is a skill that needs to be learned. It is something that—just like a meeting at work—needs to be scheduled and protected. And not all rest is created equal.
Aspiring to “noble leisure”
According to one of history’s greatest minds, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, rest is not just relaxation. Relaxation, he warned, is often just something we do in order to recover for more work. But true rest, what Aristotle called “noble leisure,” is defined entirely in itself and is the highest thing we humans could aspire to, because it fills our life with meaning.
Everyone who spent their first week in lockdown zoning out in front of Netflix will probably agree that not only does this get boring fairly quickly—it also leaves you with a feeling of emptiness. On the other hand, those who struggled the least with their newfound time off, or even thrived in this unusual situation, were the ones who got fully engaged in a passion project or something else that fills their life with meaning such as cooking an elaborate meal for friends or family. Counterintuitively, good rest is often very active.
What unites many of these activities, besides the fact that they give us a sense of meaning, is that they also tend to get us into flow states—those moments in which we are so absorbed in what we are doing that we completely lose ourselves in them. Good rest requires full detachment from work and our often frantic and anxious mind. And flow states help us achieve exactly that.
If you suddenly find yourself with a day off and want to make the most of your rest, approach it with a focus on noble leisure and cultivating your flow states. Your time off can become its own training on becoming a more creative and calm version of yourself when you return to work.
The first—and maybe for some the most difficult—step will be to step away from the guilt we associate with not working or participating in “visible busyness.” You know, that feeling of needing to seem busy so others can feel like we are getting good work done. If you struggle with this, remind yourself that not only do we need rest—it’s also the best way to stay productive and creative. You can’t inhale deeply if you never exhale properly. So don’t feel guilty about “not working.” Treat it as investing in incubation time within your creative process. Big breakthrough ideas most often happen during downtime, when we are seemingly at rest or in a playful state of mind. They happen when we fill our lives with high-quality leisure and flow, not while checking emails or Slack. So resist the urge to check in with work on your day off.
Instead, use your time off to check in with yourself. Often we don’t even realize how busy and anxious we are until we take some time to reflect. Journaling or introspection should be a key part of everyone’s rest ethic. It not only helps us better understand ourselves—it also points at things that aren’t working and how we can improve them. If you need some inspiration with where to start, how about asking yourself the following two questions: What (or who) gives you the most sense of meaning in your life? Are you giving the things you care about most the time they deserve?
Reflection can be quite a serious thing to do. So it’s good to balance this with plenty of play! And again, don’t feel guilty about it or think that play is only for kids. Playfulness not only makes us happy—it’s also the key to flow and creativity. And it can take many forms, from actual games to playing an instrument or getting creative in your kitchen. During play we embrace a “what if” rather than “what is” mindset. It allows us to leave our worries behind and think big and bold instead. And with all the challenges we have been facing in 2020, we could use more “what if” thinking in all parts of society.
Travel is closely related to play. It also leaves us looking at the world with a different view: focused on wonder, excitement, and possibility. And while actual far-away travel might not always be an option, you can always become a traveler in your own neighborhood. Just try to go for a walk in your local area, but explore it as if it were a foreign and exotic destination. Take time to pause, observe, and wonder, and walk down some paths you usually don’t take. As Charles H. Townes, inventor of the laser, remarked, “There are always unturned stones along even well-trod paths. Discovery awaits those who spot and take the trouble to turn those stones.” Designing and embracing our rest ethic allows us to spot those unturned stones and take the time to turn them, finding the creative discoveries and little joys hidden in plain sight that others are too busy to notice.
Try a “Tech Shabbat”
Once you get more comfortable with these smaller micropractices of time off such as reflection and a playful mindset, you might want to try something a bit bigger. We recommend experimenting with a Tech Shabbat, an idea inspired by Tiffany Shlain, entrepreneur, filmmaker, and author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, who practices this on a weekly basis. The idea is simple: for 24 hours you switch off all screens and connected devices. It might take a bit of preparation (such as printing out maps for a road trip), but once you get past the initial shock of the digital detox you will discover a new worldview and deeper connections with the people around you. You will rediscover the sense of possibility and seemingly everlasting days that we all felt as kids. And if 24 hours seems too daunting, you can always start smaller and try an afternoon of morning.
A related experiment we recommend is a “No Chronos Day.” The ancient Greeks had two different concepts of time, Kairos and Chronos, which were represented by gods of the same names. Chronos is the time we are all familiar with: minutes, seconds, Google Calendar invites, and alarm clocks. Kairos, on the other hand, is not quantity but quality of time, such as the time you experience during flow states or when you spend time with your loved ones. Kairos time is also happening during the light-bulb moments when we have a breakthrough in the shower or on a walk. We don’t know when Kairos will manifest, but being too rigid with your clock time can leave you blind to seeing when it is right there in front of you. So for one day, try to intentionally ban Chronos from your mind by not paying attention to your watches or clocks, and invite Kairos into your life instead.
Whatever you end up doing on your day off, we hope it fills your life with meaning and leaves you full of energy and inspiration to tackle the things you truly care about. Put in just as much energy and intention into your time off as you do during your time on. The future needs us all to be more intentional, creative, and calm.
John Fitch and Max Frenzel are coauthors of the new book Time Off: A Practical Guide to Building Your Rest Ethic and Finding Success Without the Stress. In the book, the business coach and AI researcher question the common assumption that “busy” = “productive” and offer practical solutions to help us all prioritize our “rest ethic.” Amid a culture that worships “busyness,” John and Max want readers to unlearn workaholism by learning “noble leisure” of the past and developing a quality #RestEthic.