SINCE 1884, Americans have enjoyed a day of rest on the first Monday of every September. A creation of the Labor Movement, the holiday is meant to celebrate the social and economic achievements of organized labor, which brought us better wages, reasonable hours (imagine working 12 hour days, 6 days a week), a stop to child labor, health benefits, and safer working conditions.
So, we have this day each year to relax and enjoy more time with our families — and many of us do just that. Yet, there are many of us (ahem, writers!) who see a day off from our day jobs as an opportunity to get more done. And so we rise early and begin checking items off our to-do list, hoping to crank out just one more chapter. And when Tuesday arrives, as it always does, we wonder why we feel so tired and what happened to our “time off.”
So I’m here to tell you why you need to rest and why it will actually make you more productive, not less.
This idea seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t it logical that more hours of work would equal getting more done? That’s why we Americans are so busy, busy, busy. And why we feel guilty if we aren’t either working or otherwise applying ourselves to our goals.
But more work does not equal increased productivity, statistically speaking. The most productive countries in the world are Germany and France — yet workers there get a whopping 30 days of vacation per year. And a Harvard Business Review survey found that corporate leaders who took more time off were more productive because when they returned to work they were more focused and efficient. In other words, time away from the daily grind refreshed their minds and renewed their motivation, making their efforts more effective.More work does not equal increased productivity. Click To Tweet
So what should we do if we’re not working?
Try sleeping a few more hours. Cheri D. May, a Stanford researcher, found that when male basketball players slept 10 hours a night, their performance during practice improved by 9 percent.
If spending long hours in bed isn’t your thing, you can have the same performance-boosting effect by napping during the day. According to another performance study, when air traffic controllers napped for approximately 20 minutes during their workday, they performed better in tests measuring reaction time and vigilance. And longer naps of 60-90 minutes improved memory test results as much as eight hours of sleep according to University of California, Riverside researcher, Sara C. Mednick.
Mental downtime and renewal doesn’t need to come in the form of sleep. Other research has revealed that periods of strategic renewal, including frequent vacations and “mindless” activities such as meditation, long walks in nature, gardening, exercise, yoga, and active play all help to clear the mind of “debris,” generate creativity, and boost productivity.
In an opinion article for The New York Times, Tim Kreider writes, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”
In Scientific American, Ferris Jabr adds, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”
Jabr’s statement is substantiated by numerous studies over the past few decades measuring the relationship between mental rest and productivity, creativity, and decision making.
A 2012 study showed that when we let our minds wander, we allow our brains to engage in “default mode” — a state of neural processing that is suppressed when we’re concentrating on mental challenges. This default mode is where our mind goes when we are daydreaming, and is important to creativity and problem solving. Ideas and solutions that seem to come out of the blue — when we’re taking a shower or lying on a lounge chair gazing at the clouds — are simply the result of default mental activity during downtime.
As a writer, you know that writing is hard work. And writing well requires a great deal of energy, creativity, ingenuity, and problem-solving skills — all of which are enhanced by restorative rest and play.
So go ahead and take the day off to do nothing of consequence. Give yourself a much-needed mental break. You’ll come back to your work refreshed and with renewed creative vigor.