Learning to rest well, productively

Photo captured in Minamurra, NSW / Canon EOS 600D.

Rest is hard. If you’re anything like me, rest is so often accompanied by guilt. We live in a world that tells us our lives are all about experience and productivity and success. Rest doesn’t fit well into that equation. We can’t stop, we won’t stop, for we fear that if we do stop, we will miss out – on the opportunity, the experience, the acclaim. So we feel guilty when we take a moment for ourselves, feeling we aren’t using our time productively. Or we play the comparison game, scrolling through our newsfeeds to find evidence of others’ busy, exciting lives. We feel inadequate, so we rush to look like we are busy too, even though internally we groan at the thought of going out because we are burnt out.

A hard lesson I have had to learn through years of struggling with chronic illness is that rest is vital for a healthy life. Before I developed CFS, I never stopped. There is a cliche that adolescents are lazy, but when you’re a high achiever, laziness isn’t an option. Every spare moment of my early teenage life was filled with activity. When I wasn’t at school, I was at lessons for multiple musical instruments, or at orchestra practise, or at gymnastics training, or swimming, running, cycling…not to mention church commitments. I never stopped, and I liked it that way. I felt guilty for watching TV, so I read books or played instruments instead. No one told me that it was ok to rest, that I didn’t have to always be doing something…until my body stopped working and I couldn’t do anything anymore.

To this day I still find rest hard, buying into the idea that if I’m not out doing something then I’m not really living life properly. Part of this is due to a sense of loss from the years where sickness stole my capacity to do most of the things I loved. I fight against the thought that I have to make up for years of forced inactivity, as well as the perception of others that I am limited due to illness. I’m learning though, one day at a time, that it’s possible to be productive and still rest well. Finding a balance between making the most of the energy I do have, and maintaining that energy through intentional rest, has become a survival tactic for me. I’ve learnt that I do life and relationships better when I am willing to say no when I need to stop, that sometimes it is more loving to take time for myself than to push and exhaust my body further.

What does productive rest look like? Here are some things I’ve found helpful:

Writing lists and setting goals

It’s hard to keep track of life well without writing things down. I find that my memory gets pretty hazy when I’m busy, and I often don’t realise how much I’ve been doing until I crash. Keeping a calendar and diary where I record the events/appointments/activities I am doing throughout the week helps me to see when I haven’t taken time to rest. I find it helpful to have one on my phone (Google Calendar) to carry around with me as well as a paper version at home that I update every couple of days.

I try to designate one or two rest days each week where I keep my activity to a minimum. I’m not very good at being idle though; unless I’m super unwell, you won’t find me bingeing shows on Netflix. On my rest days, I find it helpful to write out a list of small goals I’d like to achieve, including activities as simple as ‘get dressed’ and ‘make lunch’. One of the keys to rest is finding relaxing activities you love that don’t feel like work. My list today included: ‘write a blog post’, ‘re-pot the succulent’ and ‘play piano’, among other things. Rest doesn’t mean you can’t be productive, and there is something immensely satisfying in looking back over your day and seeing goals you’ve achieved and enjoyed.

Prioritising your inner circle

We only have a limited number of hours in the day, and days in the week, to see people. While it’s quite normal to have 1000+ Facebook friends, the reality is our social circles – the people we see and interact with in life – likely ranges between 100-200 people. Our inner circle – the people we are closest to among family and friends – are the ones who most impact our physical and mental health. Not everyone is going to be in our inner circle – we just can’t maintain that many deep relationships! It’s important to establish who is in our inner circle (think: who can I depend on? who knows me best? who invests equally in me?), and prioritise spending time with them first.

That does not mean you only have 5 close friends and refuse to spend time with anyone else. Some of my dearest friends I only see a few times a year due to where we live, and other good friends I see every week. Every relationship is unique and requires different levels of time and commitment. It’s important to learn that you cannot invest equally in everyone, and it’s ok to not be everyone’s best friend. It’s also ok to let go of toxic friendships and maintain boundaries in how much you share with people you are not as close to. In order to rest well, every moment of your spare time can’t be filled up with social engagements. This is a lesson I’m still learning (fighting my inner FOMO), but I’ve found I can be a much better friend when I am not exhausted from seeing too many people.

Having realistic expectations

Each of us has a different capacity in life, and learning how your body and mind function takes time. I need to regularly adjust my expectations of myself in reference to my physical and mental health which fluctuate seasonally. I have days where I can walk across the city, go on bushwalks, spend hours writing an essay or stay out past midnight at a party. There are other days where simply getting out of bed is a huge achievement, where getting dressed and putting food into my body consumes all my energy. Learning to accept this difference, and to plan life accordingly, has helped me to appreciate the days when I need to rest.

Being social beings, it’s impossible not to compare ourselves to others. When I see my friends working full time and filling their weekends with social events and leisure, I struggle not to feel inadequate. Recognising that your capacity is not the same as others’, and setting (and ACCEPTING) your expectations of yourself, helps you to balance life and rest more effectively. Learning to say no to people – and to be OK with that – can be hard, but ultimately gives you the freedom to enjoy life more. Articulating to others that you cannot meet their (unrealistic) expectations is difficult, but true friends will accept you as you are and not push you beyond your limits.

Acknowledging we were made to rest

Biologically, we are beings who need rest. The fact that a third of our lives are spent sleeping makes this clear. In rest and sleep, our bodies heal and grow and renew. We cannot work 24/7, because our bodies – especially our brains – require us to stop. A life without proper rest leads to a greater susceptibility to illness, causes imbalance in our circadian rhythm (our internal body clock that manages sleep), decreases our attention and memory performance and can negatively impact mental health. Paradoxically, in order to work and function well we NEED to rest.

As a Christian, I recognise that rest was part of God’s design in creation – after the work of creating, God himself rested (see see Genesis 2:1-3). This pattern of work and rest is seen throughout the Bible, ultimately pointing to Jesus. The gospel writers take care to note that Jesus took time out from ministry to pray and rest, reflecting God’s pattern for creation (eg: Mark 4:38). Ultimately, Jesus death and resurrection are the means by which we ourselves can enter God’s rest – eternal life in His presence (see Hebrews 4:9-11, 10:12). The work and rest we experience now are preparing us for God’s glorious rest. We are also promised rest now, in Jesus, who says:

β€œCome to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
~ Matthew 11:28-30



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