Wrestling with Rest: Finding Balance Between Real Rest and Procrastination

Photo: Hernan Sanchez on Unsplash

Exhausted, demoralized, and wanting to stop a small voice cries out to us. “Take a break, you deserve it and have worked hard.” The small voice is our desire to rest. It’s a tricky voice because we rarely hear this voice when we’re fully engaged and energized.

Instead, rest calls to us when we’re at our weakest. If we’re trying to improve ourselves and push beyond our limits, exhaustion is inevitable. Sometimes, we need to rest. Often, we need to dig deep, double down, and press ahead.

Procrastination is a powerful adversary. It’s the master of rationalizations, justifications, and changing appearances. When we feel the desire to rest, it’s often the desire to put off something difficult or painful.

In the United States, we’ve adopted a culture of hyper-productivity. While it’s valuable to be focused on producing the most you can and striving towards what you want, the mentality isn’t without its dangers.

As a whole, we’ve grown more susceptible for mistaking relentless, short-term progress towards a goal as preferable to a consistent, enduring pursuit. Despite our common beliefs that those who rest are losers, there’s strong evidence to suggest highly productive people make intentional use of rest.

Why Rest is Valuable

America has a cultural bias against rest. Generally, we’re sold the narrative of the X-Ambassador’s “American Oxygen” where we’re constantly working and striving towards the American dream. Anyone who is seen resting is instantly lazy and clearly doesn’t want the dream badly enough.

While this is starting to change in some industries, many industries still have this belief deeply embedded in their structure. Consequently, many of us unconsciously adopt this pattern of thought too.

Resting, on its face, seems less effective than doing work. Sure, we feel good after a quality kip, but we didn’t do anything so obviously it was just a waste of time. Of course, this is far from the truth.

People who have gone on to change industries spent large amounts of time contemplating their actions and decisions before acting. At face value, their times of contemplation would look like laziness and be criticized as such.

In actuality, they were putting in the groundwork to gather their energy and explode it out in pursuit of one specific thing.

In the spirit of Ray Dalio’s Principles, we have to dig beyond the first-order effect of rest and consider the second and third order consequences.

Increase Our Creativity

The three keys to being in a more creative state are inducing a mindstate where we’re distracted, have an abundance of dopamine in our brains, and are totally relaxed. Our economy has always valued creative solutions with utility.

With time, the value we have placed on usefully creative ideas has only increased. Especially as a robotic future looms on the horizon, creative work within new contexts is one of the few domains humans still have a distinct advantage.

Rest and time to simply flip through our thoughts are vital to this process. When we are resting, we’re still usually thinking. That’s what our brains do. If we’re only loosely focused on the thoughts and not much else, peculiar ideas can float to the surface.

A large majority of these thoughts won’t be all that useful. Some will be too big or impractical for the current moment. A select few will be like the gold at the bottom of a sieve of grit. The ideas are still rough and unfinished, but there’s great value below the layer of mud.

Discovering a valuable idea is a wonderful start, but more important than the discovery of a novel idea is execution to make it a reality.

Replenish Our Energy

It’s hard to do important, demanding work if we can barely drag ourselves out of bed.

We like to think that we can just will ourselves past these bumps forever. Unfortunately, we’re wrong on this front. Whether or not you believe willpower is limited doesn’t matter here because your physical energy is finite.

Humans evolved themselves to exert as little work as possible. Laziness is hardwired into our DNA! Of course, we should look at this within the context it developed. I recently stumbled upon this article, which did a great job explaining this development.

To summarize the article, when humans were still hunter-gathers energy conservation made sense. Food was scarce, so the logical thing to do was to conserve as much energy as possible until it was needed for additional food.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then, and especially in Western Countries, a large percentage of the population has access to more than enough food to fulfill their needs. Unfortunately, biological evolution is a comparatively slow iterative process.

Our biology still thinks that we need to conserve energy because we don’t know when the next boost will be available. Human brains are energy expensive. Experts estimate that up to 20% of our daily energy is consumed by our brains. Thus, we’re introduced to the problem.

Since we need to conserve energy and brain power is expensive, it’s no wonder that we have resistance to doing mental work. When we take time away from this demanding work and just live, we give our brains and body the opportunity to recover, repair, and reignite our drive.

Provide Us with a Mental Reset

I’m sure we can all recall a time where we’ve been wrangling a problem that we just couldn’t get any headway on. Frustrated, we walk away from the problem, either for a few hours or days. Do you remember what almost always happens on our return?

If you’re like me, you probably were able to make substantial headway, if not completely solve the problem, when you return.

As far as we understand, changing the problem from our active to passive attention is a key factor behind this seemingly magical outcome. When we step away from the problem, it usually leaves our conscious mind and goes to our subconscious mind.

When this switch occurs, our brain continues to work on the problem in the background. Released from the specific thought patterns of our active mind, our brain can begin to look for new, novel solutions. In her famous MOOC, Barbra Oakley called this the diffuse mode of thought.

Diffuse thinking is where we often come up with creative, innovative solutions to problems. We’re able to stitch together incomplete understandings or seemingly unrelated thoughts into an actionable plan.

The process of diffuse thinking is the magical mechanism behind our “aha” moments following an extended break from a problem. When we take a break from an endeavor, we’re actively inviting our brain to engage with the issue in a new way.

Attacking things from multiple angles is usually the most effective way to wear them out. It’s no different with a tough problem.

How to Beat Procrastination Disguised as Rest

Hopefully, you’re now sold on the benefits of rest. As we established earlier, rest and procrastination are often deeply connected. If you’re feeling the need to rest, there’s a good chance that you’re actually looking to procrastinate something difficult and scary.

Thankfully, procrastination masquerading as rest is still procrastination. This means that we can beat it with a handful of productivity hacks and clear intentions.

5 Second Rule

Ever since I watched Mel Robbins’ YouTube video about this technique, I’ve employed it extensively. I’m a believer in her technique. For those unfamiliar, when you encounter resistance with a task you have to do you should countdown from five to zero in your head.

When you reach zero you must take action.

The 5-second rule is a simple technique, but powerful. It switches us from the emotional part of our brain to the rational part. When our rational decision maker is in control, we are more likely to make choices which benefit us in the long run.

An added benefit of this rule is the ease it allows us to jump into action. Engagement is key to understanding whether our exhaustion was genuine or an attempt at procrastination. If we’re genuinely tired, that feeling will likely reduce in intensity, but not vanish, when we’re engaged in a task.

In the more likely case where we were simply procrastinating, our exhaustion will mostly dissipate. I experience a dissipation of exhaustion most frequently when I write these articles.

I love writing and need it in my life, but starting is difficult. Like most people, I worry if my writing is of high enough quality and if my thoughts are valuable enough.

When I catch myself waffling, I use the 5-second rule to start an article. Usually, overcoming my initial hesitation lets me power through to an acceptable stopping point. This technique works about 90% of the time for me.

Like most people, sometimes I’m in a particularly poor mood and need to call in the cavalry. For these days, I’ve found a way to amplify the 5-second rule’s power. I’ll leverage the 5-second rule to start a 20 minute Pomodoro session.

Pomodoro Session

An oldie but a goodie. Thankfully, this technique is simple but damn effective. Pomodoro’s are a great go to when we need to start on a massive task. To start, we set a timer for 20–30 minutes and during that time we can only work on one task. After the timer is up we can take a break or even stop guilt free.

Pomodoro sessions are so effective because most people will say “I can do 20 minutes.” We lure ourselves into working through the promise of a short session, we stay because we start to enjoy the task we’re doing.

Conquering our inertia is the biggest battle. Once we’ve started in a task and make headway we feel good. Usually, we want to push on until we reach a good stopping point.

Take a Walk or Move Around

The previous two techniques were mostly mental, but we’re physical creatures. Unlocking the wisdom and strength of our body can sometimes help us out of a slump.

Exercise is amazing for our bodies! Not only does it help us in the long-term by increasing the number of healthy years we’ll have, but it also helps in the short-term. After we exercise, we get a wonderful combination of Dopamine, Endorphins, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

This wonderful cocktail helps us be happier and more productive immediately after exercise. We’ll feel the positive effects regardless of whether we are procrastinating or genuinely tired. The combination of neurotransmitters and new scenery will give us inspiration.

Suddenly, the big scary task doesn’t seem so bad. We’re more capable and willing to take on a potentially difficult or unenjoyable task. Our neurochemistry has fundamentally shifted, so too has our perspective.

We’re able to differentiate exhaustion from resistance by how quickly these effects wear off. If, after 10–15 minutes, you still just want to collapse on the floor or veg out to YouTube, you’re probably exhausted.

The initial high of exercise has worn off and you’ve returned to your body’s base levels. If, on the other hand, you’re still going strong after a Pomodoro session, you were pushing off a difficult or uncomfortable task.

Wrapping Up

Rest is extremely important. Several big personalities undervalue and undersell rest. Without it, we’d be far less productive and far less happy. I believe that we should all shift towards a more accepting view of purposeful, high-quality rest.

Not all rest is created equal. Sometimes, especially for me, rest is a desire to procrastinate in disguise. We need to be observant of ourselves and our current mental states to try and tell the difference.

Especially if we were working on a difficult task, it’s equally likely that we’re actually at our limit or that we’re just trying to reduce our pain and effort. We won’t know until we test it. Thankfully, there are several quick, easy, and effective ways to let us know if we’re in need of rest, or needed to get over the hump.

With practice and discipline, we can get better at figuring out when we need to gear down or rev up. As we get more successful at managing this balance, we also improve at living a full life on our terms.

I’m a nonprofit professional who’s deeply passionate about effective learning, self improvement, and chasing my curiosity wherever it leads.