The pace of life in the 21st century is unlike anything the human race has seen before. Rather than living in natural rhythms of seasons and patterns we run ourselves ragged to keep pace with machines that never sleep. Of course, this isn’t sustainable so today we’re talking about an age-old practice that will protect you from burnout and ensure your long-term success and happiness.
Why We Don’t Rest
The shift to modern mechanized life is rooted in the Industrial Age of the 1800’s when workers were viewed as units of labor more than individual skilled craftsmen. At first 12-hour days were common, with some companies even having 7×12 with a swing shift of 24 on, 24 off once a week. Thankfully firms like Westinghouse pioneered more humane work practices which were later adopted throughout most of industry with the help of labor unions.
Despite these reforms and the fairly standard 40-hour work week we’ve still become a frayed and tired society. The increase of technology has made work constantly available. Even if we aren’t actively responding to emails all night we tend to engage in mindless time wasters like Netflix and social media, which does little for true restful recovery.
Physically Inactive, Mentally Drained
Now some would argue that a 40-hour work week is luxury of our modern age. After all, who are we to complain when compared to a farmer who labored dawn to dusk in backbreaking labor just to provide for his family?
While it’s true that our progress beyond subsistence farming is substantial, the seasonal rhythms of simpler times were certainly much healthier for a man’s mental psyche, even if harder on his body. Anyone who has had the satisfaction of a day of hard physical work and the results to show for it knows how that feels vs. most white-collar professions that seem an endless stream of endless, mind-numbing work.
The long-term result of this perpetual engagement of our mind and body is a destruction of creativity and passion. We exist more than live. Bleak as this sounds, it is the sad reality for many modern men.
While the problem may be worse now than ever, the solution is as old as time. The Bible’s creation story talks about how God created the earth in 6 days and on the 7th day He rested. If God needed a rest day at the end of the week, who are you to think you can muscle through without one!
This concept of weekly rest was later formalized in Hebrew law as the Sabbath. Different religious groups practice it on different days of the week (personally I think whatever day works best for you is right), but most agree it is still a good practice. It even made it in to the “Top 10” of God’s commandments that He gave to Moses. Unfortunately, while the other 9 Commandments are generally revered, even devout Christians tend to compromise on keeping a weekly day of rest.
In my experience those who fail to take a day of rest aren’t usually working their day job 7 days a week. Rather, we fail to prioritize a day each week for pure relaxation, rejuvenation, and enjoyment. Perhaps we work a little each day and tend to use the weekends for personal chores and obligations we don’t really enjoy.
Alternatively, we often don’t have a good idea of how to actually relax our mind by engaging in creative and productive thoughts and activities. Your phone’s screen time report is likely a jarring reminder of how much time you waste with mental “junk food snacking” in lieu of deep rejuvenation.
This snacking continues to fray our mind with a barrage of surface level stimulation without ever penetrating deeply and provide productive and rewarding engagement. You’ve likely experienced this as the frustrated feeling after a day of pilfering away your time watching TV and surfing the web vs. that satisfying relaxation after a day of productive hobbies and physical activity.
How to Rest
Some with strict faith traditions may associate this idea of a weekly day of rest with stringent rules and boredom. This is the unfortunate result of legalistic application of a principle rather than understanding of the true intent. A weekly Sabbath rest should not be something you dread, but anticipate and enjoy.
Given most of us don’t have jobs that require intense physical exertion, remember that mental rest is likely the most important aspect of your weekly day off. However, mental rest requires more than just doing nothing.
By design we’re meant to think and engage. If we attempt to empty our minds of all thought we’re likely to just have our most pressing and stressful thoughts come flooding in. This is why you usually end up thinking about work or other stresses when you wake up at night.
Rather than trying to just “do nothing”, the secret to a restful day is engagement with healthy, creative, and enjoyable activities in places we enjoy with people we love. Here are a few things you might consider engaging in on your weekly day of rest to encourage both mental and physical rejuvenation.
In order to have mental rest, we have to occupy our minds with creativity or learning. I find that for myself this is usually connected to some physical activity. For example, I can engage in a woodworking project for 1-2 hours and have almost no thoughts of work. These hobbies are a crucial part to our well-balanced life and will be a topic of deeper discussion in another post, but for now let’s suffice to say that having hobbies serves as a great way to engage our time during our weekly day of rest and provide a rewarding and relaxing benefit.
Reading a good book has similar result in engaging and relaxing our mind. This is why I personally read for 20-30 minutes in bed before falling asleep most nights. By deliberately engaging our mind we don’t leave room for our typical work stresses, providing a deep rest.
If reading isn’t a habit you currently have then don’t expect yourself to immediately enjoy sitting down to read for 1-2 hours at a time. Don’t pressure yourself to push past the point of enjoyment. There are times when reading just to learn and study is beneficial, but on our day of rest that would be self-defeating. If you’re reading a book that is challenging and purely educational consider getting another one that you enjoy (fiction, adventure story, etc.) to read for purposes of rest and relaxation.
Physical exercise can be a very good way to encourage mental rest. I usually don’t try to accomplish very challenging physical exercise on my weekly rest day as the mental and physical exertion is counterintuitive to our goal. Rather, I might go for a bike ride, hike, kayak paddle, or walk. These activities have a powerful benefit to both mind and body, even if you don’t break a sweat.
Of course, any physical activity has great benefits to our bodies as well. If you aren’t someone who has traditionally been very athletic or exercise focused then even more reason to start with some simple and light restful activity on this weekly day of rest. Just about everyone can complete a walk of a mile or two with little effort and you’ll find the mental benefit to be tremendous.
Connecting with Nature
An aspect of rest that can be incorporated into most of our above strategies is connecting with nature. I’m a firm believer that we were intended to live more connected to our natural surroundings than most of us do. Weeks and months pass with little more than a walk from our car to a building. Because this is such an easy lifestyle to default into most of us have to make a concerted effort to find ways to get out into nature.
Connecting with nature can range from walking in a local city park, to fishing a nearby stream, to hiking Big Sur. While many of us aren’t lucky enough to live in Colorado or California and have to make do with less grandeur, just being out in fresh air and seeing the sky does wonders.
I am fortunate to live within a mile of a lake here in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and recently started making a practice of going to fish for an hour before or after work. While it isn’t fly fishing a trout stream in Colorado, just being outside and watching the sunrise while casting into a glass smooth surface is close enough. Making a similar effort to start or end your weekly day of rest can provide great rejuvenation.
Mix it Up
You likely won’t find yourself filling the entire day with just one activity. However, I recommend having at least one “main event” to structure your day around so you don’t fall into the “mental snacking” trap and end up restless and unsettled.
For me a restful Sunday might look like rising early to make some coffee and get a pork shoulder or brisket on the smoker. Perhaps I’ll read a bit while everything is getting to temp and then have breakfast with my wife. Afterwards I may go fishing or head to the driving range to hit some golf balls for an hour or so. By this time we’re closing in on lunch. In the afternoon I’ll spend some time with my wife by the pool while reading a book and listening to some good music. Dinner is the smoked meat I started that morning, after which we may take a walk around the neighborhood and then watch an hour of TV before heading to bed.
You may not enjoy any of what I just mentioned or have family obligations that require you to adapt your activities, but hopefully this illustrates the idea of mixing up some activities to create an engaging day of rest.
The Benefits of Weekly Rest
As with any new habit, forming the routine of weekly rest can be challenging. At first you might not know what to do with all this time. Don’t be discouraged if it isn’t perfect at first and doesn’t feel very restful. Over time you’ll settle into the routine that works for you and start to experience the intended rest.
The benefits of this new routine will be many. You’ll feel less stressed and more productive throughout the rest of your week. Your creativity and mood will both increase. You’ll feel more hope and less frustration as you begin to look forward to the weekly rhythm of work and rest. Long term this will lead to a longer, healthier, happier, and more successful life!