The myth of rest

While I initially intended to write about rest being a myth, but after contemplating and discussing with friends, it will perhaps be more reasonable to write about our often mythical thinking about rest. Rest here is defined as the time outside our standard working hours and time required to meet our physiological needs (e.g. sleep). We all can roughly divide our 24 hour day into three parts. We spend 8 hours on sleep, 8 hours on contracted jobs, and it is how we spend the last 8 hours that defines our life.

A large part of our perceptions about rest is artificial and set by the media and the social environment that we are in. For example, the idea of weekends was created by Henry Ford when he realised that the demand for his cars was low among his workers because they simply had no time to travel. Thus, he set his workers free on Saturday and Sunday in a bid partly to encourage his workers to consume. A 40-hour workweek was also legalised to combat unemployment at that time.

Understanding that rest hours are simply the expectation of the employers may help to prevent us from unnecessarily internalizing that expectation. They are simply the hours that we are not expected to work for our companies. But for those of us who hold higher expectations of ourselves, we should not let the external expectations be self-limiting. In fact, if we strongly believe that we should not work after a certain time, work will be doubly exhausting when we have to do them: one for the energy required by the work and one against our own unwillingness to work. If we think of our world like the Matrix in the epic film, the so-called standard working hours are simply the routines set up by the software. To gain true freedom, we must learn to believe in our abilities and break those limits. We must also learn to leap, not between buildings, but across our dichotomy of “work” and “life”.

For those of us unable to wait for the rest hours as an escape from our work, we must think deeply about whether we truly enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with taking a break from prolonged work, as even the most exciting work can become mundane and monotonous if we are too accustomed. Yet, it demands deep retrospection if our work is pulling down the level of our happiness and we need rest hours to be filled with dopamine to restore our ideal equilibrium (by the way, dopamine does not bring happiness but that is the topic for another day). Yes, everyone can be exhausted from our work, but those with a strong interest in their work are more likely to seek peace and reflection than games and TV shows that still require mental energy. I choose to refrain from commenting on parties because of the alleged difference between how introverts and extroverts recover their energy state.

A strong argument for rest is to avoid spending all our time on work where our performance is consciously or subconsciously judged. If we spend all time on work, we may start to misplace our identity solely on work and may mistake the quality of our work as an assessment of our values. However, that should not prevent us from engaging in self-improving and productive hobbies, or projects that do not have tight deadlines. Regardless of how hard we try, a certain degree of our values will be inevitably placed on the work we do, unless we are just so unserious about it. Then, by working on different projects, we diversify that value investment so that in any unfortunate event that some projects did not go well, we can still be happy about our career in general. If we (and we should) work in highly welcoming and motivating teams, our values may be further aggregated by the social support from them.

It is, of course, entirely reasonable to think about our priorities outside our work and spend the time on activities that support those priorities, but it will be unwise to indulge in entertainment without thinking. Thinking is the keyword here. Family is, of course, a top priority for many of us, and it is natural for us to tend to spend more time with our loved ones. But it is not merely sufficient to meet the quantity of time. It is equally important, if not more, to plan activities that foster the bonding among family members. Reading for your children or hiking with them, for example, maybe much more enriching experiences than watching TV series on the sofa. Many of us merely take rest as an excuse to escape active planning and thinking. That is where the myth comes from.

As Socrates said, an unexamined life is not worth living. We are often forced to examine the hours at work, but it is often the self-examinations outside the work that makes a difference.

P.S. I had to examine my own belief about rest after I was scammed. I had to reflect whether long working hours is the reason for my clouded thinking. The answer is that it probably is part of the reason, but not the root cause. Long working hours were merely a manifestation of an unbalanced lifestyle. I noticed that I spent less time reflecting, planning, meditating, exercising and eating healthy food. I also took less pomodoro but instead rushed to get the work done (and ironically, took more time as a result). This article does not intend to preach workaholism. What I am advocating is to think independently, creatively and most importantly, think, even when no one asks us to.

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Tim
Computational Biologist & Medical Student

Personalizing medicine

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