Rest is not something to be earned
A little manifesto on reclaiming our time
There's a saying in Russian that goes roughly like "when the work is done, it's time for fun". In other words, you need to finish your work before you can go play. I used to think about this saying a lot. In many ways, I was a poster child for it, always finishing my homework before getting out toys and making sure to revise for my test during the day so that I could read my book in the evening. This is not to say that I was perfect: I was as prone to procrastination and lack of motivation and tiredness as anyone. But in my head, the delineation was crystal-clear: first the work, then the play.
The problem is that the older you get, the more work there is: not just your job, but also the various errands that comprise adulthood, looking after your household, or looking after others. Gradually, the end of work morphed from a clear destination into a blurred line. There was always more I could do: errands to run, tests to study for, shifts to pick up. And I know I am privileged that this shift happened in my adulthood, that I got to enjoy a childhood free of actual responsibilities or work or real, adult, worldly anxieties. Many of us aren't afforded even that.
That sense of the work being done became more and more elusive. I would stretch work days into the evening because I felt I could work more, that there was more energy I could exert before I was totally depleted for the day. My idea of rest morphed too, from fun and edifying activities like swimming or socializing to more passive pastimes like zoning out in front of the TV, because that was what my introverted brain could handle after working late into the night. Gradually, rest just became a synonym for sleep.
Our societal glorification of work leaves no room for anything else to give our lives meaning on an equal level. It leaves us wondering, when the hours of the day stretch ahead of us, "What work can I do today? How can I be productive?". In other words, what do I need to do to not feel guilty about taking time for myself? Am I permitted to do what I want, to follow my passion, or just to relax and lie on the couch and watch Netflix?
Of course, to work or not to work is not a choice, given that we need to earn money to live. But that's not what I'm talking about here. If we push this logic too far, work becomes the end rather than the means, leading to perpetual time anxiety and miserable hours of busywork while the light at the end of the tunnel, the rest, starts feeling ever more distant. Even for those of us fortunate enough not to have to work all the time, those of us with evenings and weekends and flexible working hours free from much additional responsibility, there is always a nagging worry that we're not doing enough, like an itch that constantly needs scratching. We can't seem to ever work enough to absolve ourselves of the guilt of resting. There is always more we could be doing.
By "rest", I don't just mean going on vacation or drinking with friends or scrolling through Instagram, although it certainly involves a healthy dose of all of those things. By juxtaposing "work" with "rest", "rest" definitionally becomes everything else that we are not obliged to do. A passion project you are excited about that yields no extra income. Learning to play a musical instrument. Joining a tennis league and playing matches just for fun. In other words, anything you actually choose to do, anything that makes your life feel fun and meaningful and fulfilling.
I've been thinking a lot about the saying recently, and what it means to feel like we need to "earn" rest by working. Last week (while on vacation), I tried starting each day by doing something fun, rather than racing to knock out the day's boring chores so that I could earn my rest. I was surprised by how transgressive it felt, like eating dessert before dinner. It felt like reclaiming my time from myself, but I also felt guilty to finally be doing the thing I had been trying so bloody hard to make myself worthy of doing all along. In a different way, it also felt satisfyingly right, like I was finally doing the vacation thing properly. I wasn't constantly frying my brain with planning or scheduling doctor's appointments or getting ahead on my actual job, this time on a beach rather than in my home, which is what vacation looks like for many of us and what it sometimes looked like for me.
We often associate rest with laziness and passiveness, but I think this is reductive; a distorted image drilled into us by the cult of overwork to subtly prime us to give more of our time to labor. The point when your body needs a 12-hour sleep and a reality TV marathon on the couch to rest isn't really rest, it's recovery. Instead, I'm drawn to Adrienne Herbert's concept of the "power hour". As described in Marie Claire: "The premise is simple: reclaim a single hour of your day for you. Doesn’t matter when, doesn’t matter why. All that matters is that you take it back and use it on yourself."
To me, you could equally call this a "Rest Hour" - it's an hour of your day that is wholly your own. You could spend it training for a marathon, or you could spend it watching Love Island. This seems like true rest: it can be as "productive" as you want, but at the end of the day, you are making the active choice of what to do with your time. By calling it a "Power Hour", Herbert dispenses of any associations of idleness, and reframes it as something empowering, active, and fulfilling.
Some of us may be able to wrangle a Power Hour during the day, others perhaps just a Power 10 Minutes. But in any case, Herbert's point is to make it a priority: “You owe it to yourself to pursue a life you love”. Such rest is not contingent on how much work you do, beyond the material reality of needing a job to sustain your livelihood. It's a part of your life that's just as essential as work.
To me, this is a more promising way to think about rest. Rest is not currency to be earned by putting in the hours, but a crucial part of your day to cherish and prioritize, the thing that truly gives life meaning because it is the only part of life that you will have complete ownership over. Of course, work and responsibilities can often get intense, and there will be days when rest isn't really possible. But, in the pockets of time when it is available, why not claim it and rest up to the fullest, however that might look like for you? I for one am done spending my evenings anxiously fretting over what extra work I can accomplish.
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