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How to Prioritize Rest in a Culture that Values Overwork

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For most of my life, I have only ever known one speed: fast.  

For as long as I can remember, busy was ingrained in my DNA. Whether it was working, building my business, doing improv, teaching at Drake University, or finding extracurriculars to get involved with – my days were always filled with something.  

It was not until I had my panic attack (and received my subsequent panic disorder diagnosis) that I realized I had little sense of self-awareness around how I had prioritized my time. I remember my therapist had asked me at one point what it is I do for rest and to recharge. I shared with her my love of reading, and when we explored that hobby further, I realized that by choosing to read books that covered the topic of leadership or coaching, I was not resting my brain; I was continuing to work in another way. It was an a-ha moment for me that I was never really allowing my brain to rest.  

The Human Toll of Hustle Culture  

Every day, we are met with messages around us that encourage hustle culture—getting up at 4 a.m—hacking your day to squeeze in more—doing more with less.   

The reality, however, is that we only have so much time and so much energy to give. Hustle culture asks you to fight to do more against all odds. Fight against time. Fight against your constraints. Fight to maximize your output.  

When humans place themselves (even voluntarily) in a prolonged state of stress, the body sends a stress hormone called cortisol out into your adrenal system, which raises your heart rate and blood pressure and pushes your body into action. Humans have survived for thousands of years because of this natural “flight or fight” response.  

While the desire to work harder, stronger, and faster may seem beneficial in the short term, when you fail to recognize and understand your physical and emotional boundaries, you are causing more harm than care to your mental (and physical) health.  

High blood pressure, high blood sugars, muscle and bone disintegration, reduced immune system function, delayed healing times after injuries, weight gain, digestive problems, and even poor formation of long-term memories are all linked to prolonged periods of higher cortisol. (premierhealth.com)  

And that covers just the physical effects.  

Mental Health America reports that depression is one of the three main workplace problems for employee assistance programs, and more recently, burnout syndrome was recognized as a diagnosable medical condition.  

Resting Your Brain Unlocks More Creativity, Not Less  

Resting your brain does not mean you are doing nothing. Even when you are seated in a silent room, your brain works hard to solve problems and examine things you have encountered throughout your day. It’s creating new neural pathways and connections and removing waste (yup, waste!) from your cells so they, too, can be re-energized and ready to create new memories.  

This state of rest is called the default mode network (DMN), and it is essential to a healthy brain. This phase switches on when you slow down, and it allows for rejuvenation. It gives you a chance to reflect on, expand, and digest information unconsciously. Those a-ha moments about work you have when you are deep in an unrelated task? That’s DMN taking over and allowing you to make those critical connections.  

When I commit to resting regularly, my colleagues will comment on how much clearer my thinking is. That I am able to think more deeply and hold deeper conversations, create latitudinal connections across concepts, and take on the heavy lift of this work with renewed energy and a fresh eye.  

Some of the most beneficial ways to activate DMN in your brain are simple. Take a walk (bonus points if it is in nature), daydream, meditate, and participate in other introspective activities.  

Recommit to Rest  

For the last few months, I have been committed to nurturing and navigating a better relationship with rest. I was noticing that after a long work week, I would collapse. I would sleep four or five hours during the daytime as my body’s last attempt to find any relief from the constant state of stress I was in. These naps were not rest, they were my body collapsing, forcing me to take time to recover.  

Ironically, upon waking, I would almost shame myself for collapsing in this way. That little voice I had been conditioned to hear would chide and shame me into feeling guilty for sleeping, for resting, because I could have used that time to get a few more things done. Intellectually, I knew rest was essential and that it was one of my values, but my actions were saying (quite loudly) otherwise.  

I had to be intentional in a few key ways to build rest into my schedule and build a habit of rest that served me well.  

Explore What Rest Looks Like for You  

Like all things human, rest may look different for you than it does for the next person. Find hobbies that are entirely outside of your work. I choose to still read in the evenings but am intentional about what books I pick up. I must leave the books about leadership on the side table and pick up something else, or my mind starts to race, and I start to feel motivated to work or ideate.  

I also give myself permission to ignore the voice in my brain constantly pushing me to work. Recently, my nephew texted me on a Friday and asked me to play. Could I have said no and continued to work? Absolutely. But I gave myself permission to take a little bit of time, rest and settle my brain, play, create a memory with my nephew, and come back to my work energized.  

Create Rest Rituals  

Just as with small children, for whom we create routines to signal to their brains that sleep is coming, we must create rituals for ourselves that signal the same for all types of rest. It does not have to be a substantial 30-minute ordeal; it can be a small thing if it helps you set your intention to rest. My small ritual is to apply a lavender-scented hand cream in the evenings. The smell creates a robust connection in my brain with rest and puts me in a mindset ready to turn off work Sarah for the evening.  

Do not be afraid to schedule your rest, either. Coming out of a state of overwork, you may have to start by intentionally identifying a spot in your schedule to rest – even for 5 minutes! Start somewhere and weave these pauses into your day.  

Set Rest Boundaries  

Sometimes, we must get clear about what we want (and do not want) before setting boundaries. Understanding what is important to you will help you create boundaries that will allow you to finally, restoratively, rest.  

 I think for business owners and people in high-stress work environments, the expectation is always to be go-go-go, but my mental health suffered, and my relationships suffered. So, for me, my boundary is to step away from work at a specific time in the evening and focus on my relationships.  

What does rest look like for you? What boundaries around rest are firm? 

Comments (5)

Really thought provoking and affirming. Thank you for your work…and your rest!

Michael Petermann

Thanks for sharing. Had nearly 40 yr career of overload in work, and personal life – father of 4 kids. No complaints Was not aware of some of the physiological responses due to that lifestyle.
I tried to schedule “workouts” that I often blew off to do work or family responsibility.
Never scheduled rest. Would do some things differently if I knew then what I know now.
.
There’s a line in the movie The Natural… “we actually live two lives…. the life we learn with, and the life we actually live.”

Be well

MIke

Great message, Sarah. Thanks so much for your insight. This is something I “know” but struggle with immensely. Even if I don’t always take time to pause, I often find myself thinking about taking a break in the day, how weird is that? I do find time to appreciate the spaces I find myself in at times and will take the long way around if walking to a meeting.

I really appreciate your perspective and story. Thank you.

Sarah, this is so important! Thank you for inviting us to consciously choose what truly serves us. Delicious practical tips that we can use, as always!

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