Why Do We Resist Rest?

Rest is sleep’s poor cousin. Something to fit in when we can but rarely a priority. Yet taking time out for ourselves every day brings many benefits of its own.

Busyness, or having lots of demands on your time, has become something of badge of honour.

Asked how we are, we are as likely to answer ‘busy’ as we are ‘good’ or ‘fine’ – almost like we are assuring ourselves we are in demand and important, says psychologist and BBC radio presenter Claudia Hammond, author of The Art of Rest: how to find respite in the modern age.

And research led by Columbia marketing professor Silvia Bellezza shows that people perceive others who are busy – and who use products indicating they are busy (like a Bluetooth headset for multitasking) – to be important and impressive.

This cult of busyness has a downside, says Hammond, and it is that we struggle to fit in rest.

What exactly is rest?

Rest is anything that helps you to relax, switch off from worrying, take a break, and take a pause, says Hammond on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) radio show Tapestry. Rest can be different for everyone. It can be active (going for a walk or run) or passive (reading or listening to music).

Rest is not the same as sleep. Sleep is an essential function. Without it, every system of your body is affected, from your cognitive function to your immunity. When you are sleep deprived, your body will eventually force you to sleep.

Resting, on the other hand, is not valued nearly as much as sleep. It is often something we fit in at the end of the day if we can, when everything else is done.

Yet ‘waking restfulness’ is good for us – physically, by reducing blood pressure and heart rate, and mentally and cognitively, through boosting mood, memory and our ability to concentrate. Rest allows you to take a break when you are awake to let your mind shut off.

What is stopping us resting?

Rest does not always come easily. You may put up barriers that prevent you from taking time out, says PsychCentral. Some common ones include:

  • Believing rest is the same as being lazy, and feeling guilty about it.
  • Being a perfectionist and setting yourself impossibly hard goals.
  • “Even though we may not recognise it as perfectionism, at times we are desperately trying so hard to be perfect by doing, accomplishing, and achieving everything we set our minds to,” says psychologist Dr Kelly Vincent. This may affect your ability to rest, she says, because of a fear that your life will spin out of control if you engage in a period of mental rest.
  • Being uncomfortable or afraid to rest. You may find you get bored when resting, or that having a rest means you have to stop doing whatever it is you are doing and fear this will set you back.
  • Having invasive thoughts. Ruminating and worrying can stop you fully resting. You may worry about getting all your work done, what you are going to have for dinner, even what others think about you resting!

The Rest Test

Claudia Hammond led a team in a 2019 study called The Rest Test, the largest global survey on rest ever conducted. The online study of 18,000 people from 135 countries found that regardless of income, two-thirds of people said they wanted more rest.

Hammond says that while often we are very busy and have too much to do, there is pressure to be achieving all the time. We live in an era with information at the touch of a button, and our social media feeds are full of people doing amazing things.

For many people in The Rest Test survey, the prospect of switching off and resting was associated with anxiety and guilt.

“We set ourselves high standards,” says Hammond. “We want to be fit, look a certain way, or cook amazing meals for our guests.”

Even during the pandemic there was almost a pressure to do lockdown well, she says. “Pressure to learn new things, make amazing sourdough bread – you needed some sort of achievement. Whereas the second time we had lockdown it was enough to get through.

“And I think the other thing is that the boundaries between work or not working have become really blurred, because technology has allowed them to do that,” says Hammond. “With so many people working from home during the pandemic, that is only increased.”


How much rest?

If you are thinking to yourself “well, I cannot fit in any time to rest because I am too busy,” Hammond says that we all have wasted moments in our day that we could reframe as resting.

This could be time commuting on a train or bus, time spent in a queue, or minutes spent waiting for someone or something.

Hammond says she new reframes wasted time as rest by thinking “yeah, I am going to rest now for 10 minutes, I have got a gift now of a break.”

When you are working and caring – whether for children or older relatives – carving out rest time is difficult, Hammond admits. She recommends prescribing yourself at least 15 minutes a day of something you find restful. This could be having a coffee in your garden or balcony, going for a walk, reading, or watching a favourite TV show.


Top 10 most restful activities

According to The Rest Test, these are the top 10 activities people find the most restful:

  1. Reading
  2. Being in a natural environment
  3. Being alone
  4. Listening to music
  5. Doing nothing in particular
  6. Walking
  7. Taking a shower or bath
  8. Daydreaming
  9. Watching TV
  10. Meditation or practising mindfulness