• In order to perform at our best, in work and life, we need adequate rest

  • Psychologist Thijs Launspach explores why rest is crucial, and the difference between active rest and passive rest

Recently, I was given the opportunity to talk to a few professional athletes about their training regimes. I had always imagined the schedule of an athlete preparing for the Olympic Games to be full of intensive training sessions. 

Turns out this is only part of the story. One of the most important elements of any Olympic training schedule is getting plenty of rest and relaxation. An athlete who fails to recover properly will end up pushing themselves too hard and runs the risk of ‘overtraining’, the equivalent of burnout in the professional sporting world. Regardless of how fit you are, overtraining can result in you peaking too soon and prevent you from performing at your best when you need to. That’s why a professional athlete’s schedule contains not only intense effort but plenty of rest days, sleep and healthy food, too. 

What applies to top athletes also applies to the rest of us: if you expect to be able to perform regularly at your peak, you must get enough rest. Like professional athletes, we can only handle the daily marathon we call ‘work’ if we also afford ourselves enough recovery time. Nevertheless, most of us tend to fill the gaps in our diaries with work and other activities instead of leaving some room for rest and recuperation. And to make matters worse, when we do take some time off we often feel guilty about doing nothing and not putting our time to ‘good use’. 

If we want stress and burnout to become a thing of the past, we will first have to remove the taboo that surrounds getting enough rest. Moments of rest and relaxation ought to occupy a more prominent place in our lives. These important moments should not be regarded as a kind of ‘breather’ in between jobs but as a natural and fundamental part of our way of life. 

Rest is actually crucial to our wellbeing and is good for both body and mind. We all need at least a little time to think, to reflect on life and even just to be bored. All of which is impossible as long as we continue running flat out on the treadmill. 

We need to relearn the art of rest, especially in these hectic times. I like to imagine that in a few years from now it will be entirely acceptable to say, ‘Given how hard I worked last week on our project, this week I am going to take a day off.’ Getting enough rest is not just something we should do when we are exhausted. We need to see it as crucial time that we use to build up our reserves. 

At school the mantra should not only be that you have to do your very best every day, but also that you can only perform at your peak when you are adequately rested. It is only when we fully embrace rest that we will be able to take a stand against stress and burnout. 

So, ask yourself: how do you spend your free time? Do you fill it with as much or as little activity as you can? Consider the difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ free time. Active free time is spent on things like hobbies, sport, friends and family. These are the hours in which you do things that are not related to your work but still provide you with energy and satisfaction. 

At the other end of the spectrum is passive free time: reading, watching TV, resting. Passive free time is actually the time you use to recover and build up your energy reserves again. Ideally you get to enjoy both active and passive free time – one to divert your attention from work and the other to regroup and recover. If your free time is almost always of the active kind, your life will be incredibly energetic but you will never have enough time to recover. 

Your free time is meant for relaxation and recovery, and that is impossible when you have too much on your plate. A more relaxed life starts in your mind and requires you to think differently about certain things. You first have to realise you’re allowed to make choices. And when you also realise you can say ‘no’ and know how to do that effectively, you will be well on your way. 

Thijs Launspach is a psychologist, TEDX and keynote speaker and author of Crazy Busy: Keeping Sane in a Stressful World.

Further reading

Enough is enough: Is your ambition making you happy?

How unconscious forces drive our behaviour at work

Why can't I relax?

What's the tension in your body trying to tell you?