sandra glahn guest post

The Importance of Doing Nothing

Most geeks I know, despite the stereotype of science and math nerds who think only in abstract precepts, have an artsy side. They detect patterns others miss like peanuts triggering migraines. They create stuff like Velcro. And they think outside the table the box lies on.

Yet if we work too hard, laboring through the weekends and refusing to take that trip to the Grand Canyon, we lose our creative edge.  

We know the facts:

  • The average adult needs six to eight hours of sleep nightly.  
  • People who never take a one-day stop every week have higher rates of depression.
  • Some 25 percent of Americans and 31 percent of low-wage earners take no vacation, ranking below 138 other countries in rest time taken.
  • Americans forfeit billions of dollars in unused vacation days.  
  • Annual vacations cut the risk of heart attacks in men by 30 percent and by 50 percent in women.
  • Performance increases after a vacation, with reaction times going up 40 percent.
  • Vacations cure burnout, the last stage of chronic stress.
  • All studies show performance increases with recharging and refueling.

Reflecting on his job interview experience, a seminary president recalled the kinds of questions he received from the committee that hired him. They seemed to love his description of uber-long workweeks, asked nothing about his habits of rejuvenation, and applauded the workaholism that made possible his achievements.

But it’s not just those who evaluate leaders who reinforce such behavior. Most of us encourage each other to maintain impossible to-do lists. We o-o-h and a-h-h over another’s accomplishments, but if someone takes a great vacation, we’re more likely to express jealousy than affirmation.   

In my own journey from workaholism to setting aside a day for rest, I have found one piece of advice especially helpful: to structure my day of rest after those who have observed such days for thousands of years—by going from sundown to sundown rather than resting from sunup to sunup. For me, working on Saturday, ceasing in the evening with a big meal or a movie, taking Sunday till evening for rest, and gearing up for the workweek that night has worked out much better. That structure allows me to move work to the edges of both days while still allowing a full twenty-four hours to recharge.

Having practiced such a day for a couple of decades now, I have some advice:

Refuse to feel guilty about taking time off. Rest is not a luxury; it’s a necessity and a gift.

Never use busyness to cover pain. Busyness—as opposed to abusing alcohol, taking illicit drugs, and using other forms of self-medication—is a more socially acceptable way to numb pain. But it’s still unhealthy. Do you need to see a counselor?

View yourself as being one-seventh disabled. If you found out tomorrow you had a chronic condition that required you to cut back, you would find a way to make life work.  

Check your identity.  Many of us tend to wrongly get our identity from what we do. But as the saying goes, we are human beings, not human doings.

Accept your mortality. Sleeping and time off can serve as regular reminders that life is short and it will soon go on without us. Our rest time provides a good opportunity to reflect on how we can give away power, mentor those coming behind us, and delegate responsibility to those ready to assume it.

Expect to become more ethical. Ever notice when you get bored how you start making lists like, “Check in on my parents” and “write a thank-you note”? Slowing down can have the same effect. All those promises we’ve forgotten we made can come to mind when our minds slow down long enough to remember. And other people will view our follow-through as integrity.

Plan ahead. Take meals, for example. Consider eating lighter, easier-to-prepare foods such as sandwiches and fruit, which require minimal effort. One family eats “breakfast for dinner” on Saturday nights. I rely on the crock pot. If you have small children, work out with your spouse, a grandparent, or a friend how you can give each other gifts of time alone.

Consider lowering your standards for vacation destinations. Take a stay-cation if you can’t afford to leave town. Don’t assume your options include “Tahiti or nothing.” Fly a kite in a park near your home. Take your journal and head for a friend’s back porch.

Plan vacations before you leave home. Are you the type of person who gets frustrated when you have to spend precious time off making decisions about where to eat and what routes to take? If so, consider doing your research in advance or assigning it to a travel companion who enjoys handling such details.

In the same way that the holes in lace make otherwise boring fabric beautiful, times of rest and reflection create spaces in our lives that add beauty. Are you making time to recharge?

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