Rest: Why You Need to Schedule Downtime
In a new series of blog posts, we’ll be looking at how doctoral researchers can effectively look after their own mental and physical wellbeing, and how important this is not only for future jobs, but for the success of their doctoral studies.
This month’s post looks at rest, and particularly deliberate rest, based on the research of Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, and his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. The key point of his book is that rest, or how we spend our non-working hours, influences greatly how effectively we perform at work or study, and the periods of rest we have allow the brain to strengthen, absorb learning, and work on those niggling problems that have been irritating us for hours.
Rest can also be an important tool to fuel creativity. Going for a walk allows you to divert your attention, while your brain is still working away at problems. The Uncertainty Principle and the Rubik’s cube had both been worked on for months until Heisenberg and Rubik, respectively, took a walk and the solution came to them while their attention was diverted. Hamilton’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the idea while on holiday, and wrote lyrics for the Tony, Grammy and Olivier Award-winning musical while walking his dog in the park. It doesn’t have to be an hour-long trek. Just a 15 minute stroll is enough, and you’ll help prevent back pain by getting out of your seat.
In addition to providing a meaningful distraction and producing the happiness-inducing chemicals endorphins, exercise improves the circulation of blood to your whole body, including your brain. Better blood circulation in your brain means that you’re better able to concentrate and cope with pressure. Recent research has also found that exercise stimulates neurogenesis, allowing the ideas to flow and for you to find a new angle to that problem you’ve been working on. It doesn’t have to be anything strenuous either, just going for a walk will get your blood working, and as we’ve already seen, it might be just what you need to sort out that problem.
Just remembering to take breaks throughout the day can be hugely beneficial to your work. Pang tells how Charles Darwin worked in three 90 minute periods throughout the day, and broke work up by going on a walk, answering letters or having a nap. Working like this, Darwin wrote nineteen books, including On the Origin of Species. It’s not just Darwin either. A study in the 1950s found that productivity peaked when a scientist was spending 10-20 hours per week working, and then turned sharply downward, showing that a 50 hour working week was only as productive as spending one hour a day at work. Obviously, it’s not going to be feasible to tell your employer you’ll only be working a 10 hour week and still expect to get paid for 40, but structuring your day properly, and making rest as important as work means that the work you do will be more effective. If you need help structuring your time, or getting used to working in bites, try using the Pomodoro Technique, breaking your day up into 25 minute chunks with a short rest after each one. These types of short, intensive work can be really helpful to productivity.
When you aren’t at work, don’t work! Although it may seem simple, we all have a tendency to check our emails outside of working hours. In order to properly rest and give yourself the chance to relax, it’s really important to NOT check emails in the evenings, weekends or while you’re on holiday. There’s a feeling that we should be available at all hours sometimes, but these things will keep, and is it really vital that you answer that email right now? One way to help with this is to not have your emails available on your smartphone. Making it less easy to access, means you're less likely to access them when you aren't at work.
Being able to take a break from work, and fully detach is what allows us to keep going. Going away for a week provides an emotional boost of about 4 weeks when you return, because you are able to physically and mentally recover. Research by sociologist Sabine Sonnentag shows that when you have the chance to get away from work and switch off, you are more productive, empathetic and able to deal with difficult problems at work. Pang suggests that short holidays should be taken regularly, rather than one long holiday once a year. In this way, you are maximising the levels of recovery you benefit from.
This leads on to need to disconnect from the variety of devices that surround us. Apart from the fact that the blue light that electronic devices emit disrupts our sleep pattern, our reliance on our smartphones has made us less present in our own lives, and stops us from resting. Instead of checking twitter or reading the news (it will only depress you!) why not read a book, catch up with a friend over coffee, go for a run (or cycle), test out a new recipe or start up a new hobby?
When we pursue hobbies and sports that we find rewarding, we can get the same satisfaction of completing a task at work, but without the same frustrations and pressures. Code-breakers at Bletchley Park during World War Two used to play chess together during their breaks, finding that not only did it build the mental skills required for cryptanalysis but it provided a psychological detachment from their work that allowed them to recover. Pang noted that many successful scientists are also musicians – Brian Cox was the keyboardist in D:Ream while completing his degrees in particle physics, and Queen’s Brian May took time off from music to complete his PhD in astrophysics. These sorts of mentally absorbing activities provide respite and disconnection from work.
We all know we should be getting 7-9 hours sleep a night, but how many of us actually do so regularly? And why is it so important? One of the main reasons is that it allows your brain the time to consolidate memories and skills, ensuring that what you’ve learnt that day is retained. Sleep is also the time when the brain repairs or replaces damaged cells, and runs a sort of ‘rinse cycle’, clearing out toxins. This the key aspect for your long-term health. Researchers at the University of Rochester found that during sleep, the glial cells work to remove beta-amyloid, a protein which builds up on the brain and is thought to be one of the main causes of Alzheimer’s. We’ll look at sleep in more detail in another blog, but for now, just get your 7 hours!
One of the key problems with rest in recent years has been that to be labelled a ‘workaholic’ has become a status symbol, and we have come to believe that in order to be successful, you must be stressed and overworked. In actual fact, the opposite is true, and in allowing this false ideal to promulgate we are making work our whole lives. As Stephen R. Covey posits in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, ‘How many on their deathbeds wished they’d spent more time at the office?’
 Pang 2016, 100-101.
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Covey, S. R. 1989. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. London: Simon & Schuster.
Fleming, A. 2018. ‘The truth about blue light: does it really cause insomnia and increased risk of cancer?’. The Guardian, 28 May. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/may/28/blue-light-led-screens-cancer-insomnia-health-issues (last accessed 5 March 2019).
Pang, A. S-K. 2016. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. London: Penguin.
Sonnentag, S. 2003. ‘Recovery, Work Engagement, and Proactive Behavior: A New Look at the Interface Between Nonwork and Work’. Journal of Applied Psychology 88:3, 518-628.
Van Zelst, R. H. and Kerr, W. A. 1951. ‘Some correlates of technical and scientific productivity’. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 46:4, 47-475.
Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M. J., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., O’Donnell, J., Christensen, D. J., Nicholson, C., Iliff, J. J., Takano, T., Deane, R., and Nedergaard, M. 2013. ‘Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain’. Science 342:6156, 373-377.