One man’s recreation is another man’s work.

Personally I can’t stand Sudoku (probably because I am not very good with numbers).  Not a big fan of crossword puzzles, either.  But I know several people who think both are very relaxing.  I have patients who despise all forms of exercise, yet I have others who participate in bodybuilding competitions for the sheer pleasure of it.  Some of my friends think of cooking as a chore, and others are gourmet chefs, regularly hosting dinner parties in their spare time.

But here’s the question.  What do you spend most of your time doing?  Does it recharge you, or deplete you?  And if it depletes you, what (if anything) are you doing to refuel?

A few months ago I wrote about ADT, or Attention Deficit Trait – a product of our fast-paced environment.  Due to high-pressure, noisy work environments requiring multitasking in order to get anything done, these people increasingly find it difficult to prioritize, stay organized, and manage their time effectively.  Some of the problems associated with ADT are decreased productivity, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, and fatigue – particularly adrenal fatigue (which comes from long term stress).

Activity that habitually “depletes” you is stressful almost by definition.  One of the most important mediators for stress due to overwork is to take at least 24 consecutive hours off from what you consider “work” every week, and choose instead to do what you consider “fun”.

The “Sabbath” Rest

This concept is not new. One of, if not the earliest, mentions of it showed up in Judaic law (what is now the Old Testament in Christianity), requiring the Jews to take 24 hours off of work every Saturday, from sun up to sun down.  Prior to this time, the Jews had been enslaved by the Egyptians for 400 years, during which time they worked 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  Originally the Sabbath was meant to be a gift to them, enabling them to rest without feeling guilty for “slacking off”.

But by the time Jesus showed up, the religious leaders had attached many additional rules to what did and did not constitute “work,” making the Sabbath into a chore, rather than a true day of rest.  Jesus (angrily) told them they were totally missing the spirit of the command – God intended to save them from the overwork from which He had originally delivered them.

The point is, rest looks different for everyone. But the ultimate goal is to recharge from life’s depleting effects, so that we can return to our regular world more effectively than before. Here’s a few tips on how to do this.

  • Get enough sleep. This should be fundamental, but it’s amazing how often we manage to convince ourselves that we don’t really need it that much.  You do.  Read this article if you don’t believe me.
  • Enjoy what you’ve worked for!  One of my new favorite handouts to give patients was inspired by Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, and it is the “urgent vs important” chart.  It’s a tool to help differentiate between those activities that are truly important (meaning the consequences of not doing them will be severe) versus those activities that are merely urgent (meaning people are yelling at us to do them ASAP – or we are yelling at ourselves – but it really won’t matter that much in the long run if we let them slide.)  Activities that fall under the “not urgent but important” category are those that allow us to develop the life we truly desire to lead.  They are things like enjoying family and friends, engaging in hobbies we love, getting healthy, and serving others.  These are the activities that refuel us, rather than deplete us.
  • Have some unstructured time.  This is time to do whatever you feel like doing, and it will be different for each person.  It’s most restorative to take a 24 consecutive hours off every week; without it, you can predispose yourself to illness the following week (because chronic stress depletes the immune system).  I give this “prescription” to my Type A patients who approach life from the perspective that “there’s always more to do!”  They are right, there is always more that could be done – and this is the very reason why it’s so important to prioritize time off. Work will always expand to fill however much time you give it.
  • Find a hobby.  This is especially critical if you dislike your job, or find it draining.  What do you love to do?  What would you have done if other “practical” concerns hadn’t gotten in the way?  This doesn’t necessarily have to be a side project, though it can be.  If you are an extreme extrovert and you have a desk job that allows for little social interaction, this might look like intentionally cultivating more interpersonal time.  If you are an introvert and you are in sales or something that requires lots of face time with others (or if you’re a parent and you’re with the kids all day long), this might mean intentionally setting aside time to be alone.

There are Seasons for Everything

I realize it isn’t always possible to take a full 24 hours off, or to take evenings off all the time.  If you’re building a new business, you will probably have to put in a lot of extra hours.  If you’re in graduate school, you probably won’t have much of a social life (or if you do, you probably won’t do too well in school)!  If you’ve got a toddler at home with special needs, it might be a few years before you can really take much time for yourself.

The key is recognizing within yourself whether your season of intense work with little downtime has turned into a lifestyle.  This can easily occur, especially if that period of intense work has gone on long enough to turn into a habit.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to think, “If I don’t put in those extra hours, someone else at the office will get the promotion!”, or “If I just work a little longer, I’ll get x many new clients, which will translate into more money, more security, or more prestige” …or even, “If I don’t continue to put in overtime, I might lose my job, and then who will feed my family?”

It takes wisdom to navigate these situations.  You probably know within yourself whether you have turned a season of overwork into a lifestyle of overwork.  If you don’t know, consider asking someone you trust (and who does not have a vested interest in the answer!) whether they believe you have done this and it’s time to begin to set some boundaries.

Rest is Productive!

If you are chronically overworked, you will almost certainly notice an increase in your productivity when you listen to the cry of your body and your mind for rest, recreation, and fun.  Often, mild cases of insomnia and anxiety, digestive disturbances, tension headaches, irritability and the like will spontaneously resolve with a little R&R.  If this is you, take it as your body’s cue that you’re overdoing it.  Time to cut back.