Give me a break.
In my more competitive athletic days, pushing myself was never a problem. In fact, left to my own devices as an aspiring post-collegiate runner, I ended up pushing myself too far and had my share of sub-par results, avoidable injuries and other undesirable aftereffects to show for it. Rest days were wasted days and taking a week off after a long season wasn’t necessary; if I wasn’t pushing, I wasn’t making progress. Long story short: I learned the hard way that I was wrong!
And while that inability to give my body and mind a real break from training isn’t an issue for me anymore, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that same behavior hasn’t been redirected to other areas of my life, specifically work. This article from psychologist Dr. Christian Jarrett on the importance of taking truly restful breaks throughout the day helped me come to that realization and forced me to think through a few things.
The tendency to keep pushing in an effort to make progress is hardwired into my personality: Once I get going on something, I suck at shutting off for fear of not continually making gains. That’s not to say I never stop working during the day. I most certainly do, but when I “stop” working (a multifaceted endeavor for me) it’s rarely a deliberate, restful respite; it’s more of an excuse to temporarily invest my energy into some other project until I go back to whatever it is I was originally doing, even if I was “just” answering emails or editing an article while eating my lunch. (This behavior is not too dissimilar to the runner who hammers on the spin bike for two hours on his or her “rest” day.)
So what’s wrong with any of that? Well, lots of things. For starters, not giving our bodies and minds truly restful breaks throughout the day (or throughout a training cycle) means we’re probably not doing our best work; it also means we’re squandering our potential to do even better work down the road. Why? It’s hard to be at your best when the battery is always operating at only a half or three-quarter charge (or less!). Constantly draining it all the way down without letting it recharge at regular intervals along the way is unsustainable practice, despite our best intentions to convince ourselves otherwise. This applies as much to our training routines as much as it does our working routines. There’s only so much juice in our batteries.
“The psychological reality is that your mental and physical reserves are limited and it is only by taking frequent short breaks of a truly restful nature that you will fulfill your true potential,” writes Jarrett.
For me, not taking restful breaks throughout the day means I’m often crawling into bed physically and emotionally spent at the end of it, much like when I was when I was training really hard many years ago. At best, I’ll wake up the next day with maybe a 50 or 60-percent charge. After another day of draining that down without properly resting and recharging, I might wake up at 40 percent. And then 30 percent. I’m not really being all that productive when trying to function at these levels but yet I keep pushing, which in small doses can be a necessary and beneficial step on the road to making progress. But going all-out all the time is a bunch of bullshit. I should know this from my own experience as an athlete. It can be easy to get sucked into a vicious cycle of constantly pushing that eventually spits you out into a pit of physical and psychological burnout—a.k.a. over-training syndrome, or its close cousin, over-working syndrome—that can be a huge pain in the ass to try and escape.
The bottom line: Rest is as important a part of training as stress, and the same principle applies to our working lives. We must be willing to rest as hard as we’re willing to push—myself included.