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  • Writer's pictureSteph

Rebellious thought: rest is not earned

A person sitting on a bench, looking out on the ocean at sunset.

I had a really interesting coaching call a few weeks ago. The thinker had booked the session because they were feeling overwhelmed. It transpired that they really needed to take some time off to catch up with non-work events that were looming in the background and stressing them out. But they felt that they did not deserve to take a whole week off. We went on to dig into that a little deeper to unpick this. Cultural and organisational factors came up, but also the personal belief that they were not working enough hours and could not possibly take a week off until that huge work project had reached a certain stage.

That triggered all kinds of flashbacks in me, of course, so I sat down after the session to reflect on those. I, too, once found it hard to take time off. Even if I managed to book a long weekend, I hardly ever could stay away from work, definitely not mentally and sometimes not physically either. There was the fear of missing out on important developments or decisions. There was the reluctance to enjoy myself while I knew my team was working hard. There was the dread of returning to several hundreds of emails after my break. But underneath all that, there was the same belief lurking: that I had not done enough to deserve a rest.

The way I was raised, there was never a day without a to-do list. And you would not be done until the list was done. If circumstances forced you to pause a task, you picked up another to fill the wait time. No rest for the wicked. This work ethic served me well during my time at university, when I was juggling a full-time course load with student jobs and work placements. Or when learning about front-end development after work, in preparation for a career change. It wasn’t really a problem until the pandemic hit and there was no counterbalance left. I did not have to finish at 5pm to get to my other job on time or beat the rush hour.

All of a sudden, I could work as soon as I rolled out of bed and keep working until my partner enforced dinner time. There was no commute that served as buffer between work and leisure, so my head stayed in work mode until I eventually managed to fall asleep. And because I had colleagues all over the world, there was always someone who needed something as well. Early mornings, late nights, weekends. The work was never done, the to-do list never grew any shorter, there was always a pressing project or last-minute change. I had no personal definition of done until I was utterly exhausted and forced to rest.

For all the physical and mental downsides, my burnout managed to teach me one thing quite effectively: if you don’t take time out to rest occasionally, your body will force you to do so semi-permanently. As part of my recovery, I had to accept new limits regarding how long I could go before I needed a break. I needed to learn to be a bit more patient and a whole lot more gentle with myself. But as I started to regain some of my drive and energy, I quickly fell into the same old mindset again. And if I am completely honest, I am only ever one step away from throwing myself into hustle culture again at any given time.

So when I came across the Nap Ministry’s “Rest Deck - 50 Practices to Resist Grind Culture” while looking for literature on burnout recovery, I sat up and paid attention. In this card deck, Tricia Hersey, author of “Rest Is Resistance”, shares some powerful affirmations that normalise resting. The one that really got me was “Rest is not earned.”. This went against everything I’d ever learnt or thought. Rest, to me, was what came as the reward for hard work. It was my personal failure that I never got all the work done, so I never got to rest properly. And here was this radical thought that turned everything upside down.

It got me thinking. What if rest isn’t at the end of the process? What if rest is what actually allows me to do my most excellent work? I’ve been experimenting with that for several months now. And sure enough, it works. I make sure that I get enough rest and slow enough early mornings so that I can do my best work between 8am and noon. I have a lunch break that involves healthy food and a walk that recharges me for the afternoon. I get quiet evenings that prepare me for good sleep. I get weekends that make me want to start work again on Mondays. I get holidays that generate interesting ideas to follow when I’m back at work.

Do I still struggle with the concept of not having to earn my rest? Hell, yes. All the time. But here’s the thing: instead of trying to convince myself with rational arguments, I decided to run experiments. The results have shown me that while I am less busy-busy, I get more important work done and feel a lot better doing it. I still have a way to go until I truly believe that I deserve this kind of life, but I am determined to enjoy it in the meantime.

What might a bit of rest enable you to do?


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