How to Get Real Rest

How to Get Real Rest

Rest is essential. People who make true rest—not just sleep—part of their everyday routine have better outcomes across different aspects of their health. Their sleep quality is better, life satisfaction is higher, chronic pain is lessened, work productivity is greater, and they even tend to live longer.

The trouble is, rest usually gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. And if you fill your nights and weekends with exciting plans, your time off can be just as demanding and depleting as work. 

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Here, experts share their tips for making the most of your downtime while also getting real, restorative rest.

The science of rest

While the benefits of physical rest are well understood, there’s less research on how to optimize psychological rest. No perfect recipe for rest yet exists, but there are some basic principles that seem to work best. 

One insight is that our brains and bodies seem to need different intervals of rest: short daily breaks and longer intervals weekly, says David Eccles, a professor of sports psychology at Florida State University who studies mental rest in elite athletes. “The most restful activities appear to be absorbing, of low cognitive demand, and inherently enjoyable,” he says.

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This combination gives our brain a break. Whether it’s a weekly yoga class or a daily game of breakroom ping pong, rest allows your brain to switch from active problem-solving to its daydreaming state. It’s in these rest periods,  “when you’re just sort of zoning out,” Eccles says, that your brain processes and stores information. 

Another thing we know about rest is that intermittent periods of mind-wandering and passive-rest are critical for memory and creativity. That’s why solutions and creative ideas often come unexpectedly during periods of rest or downtime, says Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. And the long-term impact of regular rest is greater productivity. 

Take time off from (all) work

Resting effectively is about more than getting away from the office. Lots of other things count as work, especially the activities we put off until the weekend, like grocery shopping, yard work, and cleaning. 

“People say, “Of course I know how to use my free time,” says John Dattilo, a professor of recreation, parks, and tourism management at Penn State University who researches leisure. “In reality, we are struggling to rest.”

In order to be rejuvenating, rest can’t be task-oriented, Dattilo says. It’s not a means to an end or productive. It doesn’t help you meet a certain expectation or fit in with a specific group. Even fun plans and self-care regimens lose their restorative abilities if we’re doing them for the wrong reason, like to seem remarkable, fit in, look cool on social media, or meet a beauty standard. 

“Part of rest is that you don’t feel beholden to external things you’re supposed to do,” Eccles says. 

Real rest—or what Dattilo calls leisure—is freeing, meaningful, and specific to you. And oftentimes, the simplest  activities offer the most rest, Eccles adds. A survey of 18,000 people from 134 countries found that time in nature, listening to music, and reading for leisure were some of the most frequently listed resting activities. 

Look for your joy

Rest is customizable, and the most important ingredient is that it’s a positive experience. What you do and when you do it matter less.

Your version of rest can be a stroll through the neighborhood after a long day, playing soccer with friends on the weekend, or Sunday baking. The key is that a restful activity helps you switch your focus from work—both paid and unpaid, says Eccles. 

To find out what rests you, pay attention to how an activity makes you feel. If there’s a sense of drudgery or anxiety or meeting expectations—that’s not restful, Datillo says. But if something makes you feel joy or causes you to lose track of time, there’s a good chance it’s restorative.

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And rest shouldn’t cost a lot, says Katie Wical, a public health researcher at Loma Linda University in Calif. “Spending money increases your stress levels,” she says. This is why simple pleasures, like playing catch, recreating in nature, or sharing a meaningful conversation with a friend, can be more liberating than more extravagant forms of fun, says Wical.

It’s no coincidence that many different religions practice a day of rest. Taking time away from external demands helps us refocus on what’s most meaningful. Wical studies the sleep benefits of Sabbath, the Judeo-Christian practice of taking a whole day to rest each week. “I like to view the Sabbath as a weekly vacation day,” Wical says. In her 2023 study of Seventh Day Adventists, Wical’s team found that people who anticipated an upcoming Sabbath experienced better sleep quality and lower stress throughout the week. 

You don’t have to be alone to get good rest

While resting may conjure images of a couch potato, that’s not what real rest looks like. In fact, experts agree that the scrolling and binge-watching we often revert to when we are “doing nothing” isn’t restful at all, because it diverts our attention and causes us to disengage. 

Instead, a common theme for good rest is that it requires a person to be present, Eccles says. It’s about “attending to the current moment rather than ruminating about the past or thinking about the future.” For some people that might mean getting outside for a hike. For others, that might mean painting. Others may need more intense activities like rock climbing to separate from work and relieve stress, Wical adds.

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In most cases, the best rest is active, not passive, says Pang. 

Similarly, you don’t need to be home alone in silence to recharge your batteries. However you rest, it’s likely to become more effective and meaningful when you add other people, experts say. 

A simple meal could be more fulfilling if you share it with close friends. Go fly fishing, but invite your dad. Even listening to music or reading a book becomes more meaningful when it leads to good conversation with the people around you, Dattilo says. 

Rest works best when it makes us feel connected.

Start small 

It shouldn’t be so hard to step away from work and do things that bring us joy with people we love. But experts warn that when you first start out, rest can feel uncomfortable, awkward, and even boring.

Because we live in a society where business is virtuous, resting can initially feel empty or aimless, Eccles says. “Start small,” Wical recommends.  Rather than devoting an entire day to rest on the weekend, “it’s okay to start with just three hours.” It will help if you can invite your family, roommate, or friends to embark on rest with you. The people who see the most success practicing Sabbath, for example, do it alongside others, Wical says. The community aspect makes resting feel a little less like swimming upstream. 

It may take a few tries before you start to really feel rejuvenated or even figure out how you prefer to rest, Pang says. That’s normal—and don’t quit on the first awkward try. “Rest is good because we are built for it,” he says, but that doesn’t mean it’ll come naturally.

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