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When the most productive thing you can do is rest

I have a troubled relationship with rest.

I’m not sure when the trouble first crept in — perhaps when I was a child and staying up too late would cause sharp agonies to ache in my legs, or perhaps it was later, in high school, when not-resting was its own kind of numbing that left me less capable of feeling the sharp ache of my own loneliness.

And if it wasn’t any of those things, then my troubled relationship with rest began at MIT, when my physical body became nothing more than a burden that stood between me and the monumental workload I struggled to manage each semester.

As a student at MIT, I often worked until the point when I was no longer capable of coherent thought. Only then collapsing into my bed to snatch 30 minutes or an hour of desperately needed rest only to wake, sleep-logged and disoriented, to crawl back out of my bed and work another hour or two until coherent thought once more deserted me.

I passed whole nights, sometimes many consecutive nights, in this fragmented and sleep-fogged state.

The ultimate consequence of this was that much of my time at MIT has vanished from the grip of memory — the human brain writes experience to long-term memory during sleep — and without sleep those experiences slip from short-term memory and are often gone forever.

At MIT it seemed to me that my need to rest stood directly between me and my own survival. My body seemed a burden that limited rather than supported the performance of my mind.

But ultimately, this was always an illusion.

The research is clear that people who are chronically sleep deprived underperform those who are well rested (even though the chronically sleep deprived start to feel they are “adequately rested” — the body normalizes the experience of chronic sleep deprivation after a week or two, but performance is still affected).

All of which means that, even if you don’t feel like you need it, often the most productive thing you can do is rest.

I know this, and I still struggle with rest.

I feel like I have too much going on and not enough hours and so I shave off 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there and pretty soon it’s 11 pm and I still haven’t crawled into my bed even though I know the my alarm clock will go off at 6:30 and (for me at least) 6.5 hours (though sadly almost-average) is not even close to being enough rest.

And still I comfort myself with the knowledge that 6.5 hours “isn’t too bad” because my standards were set at MIT where I went whole semesters without sleeping more than 4-5 hours a night.

I struggle because it’s hard for me to believe that if I really rested I would still get things done.

But I’m so, so tired of coping with inadequate rest (pun intended, of course).

I’m tired of the cult of “hardcore” people who seem to run on redbull and fumes and are lauded for their super-human efforts.

Maybe there are people out there for whom this actually works, but I am not one of them.

And yet I feel held to this unattainable standard, like everyone will judge me if I’m not sleep-resistant and bulletproof.

But what I’ve learned this year is that when we fear judgement from others it’s usually because we’re secretly busy judging ourselves.

I’m not entirely sure what my judgement is — likely it’s some variation on “sleep is for the weak” or “i’m too cool to rest” or “I shouldn’t need more rest than other people”.

I expect my judgement is wound up in a panic that I’ll never get far enough, fast enough if I choose to let myself rest.

But the real truth, the one that resonates in my body when I sit with it, is that I create only my own misery when I sacrifice my rest.

Which is why I’m choosing to forge a new relationship to rest.

I’m reclaiming my right to “tread gently” on my physical body and see my needs met.

Or, at least, I’m declaring my intention to start working on it.

Because it’s been years now since I graduated from MIT and more days than not I still feel like I’m carrying around the burden of those unslept hours and some days those hours feel heavier than anything I know.

Which is why today I’m choosing to rest.


What about you? How do you relate to rest? If you’re the average American it’s likely that you, too, have a troubled relationship with rest. Let me know in the comments below!