Most people I talk to these days feel stressed out and overwhelmed by the pace of modern life. There are countless distractions and demands on our attention, and if you own your own business or you’re running your own Functional Medicine or health coaching practice, there’s work that never ends.
In this article, I’m going to talk about how to use what Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach, calls free days—24-hour periods without any work—to get more rest each week. Armed with this tool, you’ll not only feel healthier and happier and be able to spend more quality time with your loved ones, but you’ll be more productive (when you aren’t resting).
How do you balance your productivity against your (very human) need for rest? Check out this article for one way to recharge. #healthylifestyle #wellness #chriskresser
Why Increasing Your Productivity Isn’t the Answer
Faced with the challenge of finding enough time in the day, many people have turned to strategies to increase their productivity so they can accomplish more. Now, that’s admirable, and I’m a huge productivity geek myself. (For more on that, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of my podcast series on achieving insane productivity.) However, there’s something that’s even more important if you find yourself feeling constantly frazzled and overworked: rest.
That feeling of being pulled in 100 different directions day in and day out can lead to chronic stress and, ultimately, burnout. That’s especially true if you work in the healthcare field: anywhere between 50 and 80 percent of physicians experience burnout. (1, 2)
Here’s what’s interesting about rest. Not only is it important for its own sake as a counterweight and balance to work and other obligations, but it’s also crucial for productivity. The human mind is hardwired to need downtime, space, and unfocused time. Rest is not simply a luxury.
As the essayist Tim Kreider puts it:
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.
While taking steps to improve your productivity can certainly lower your stress, it’s not an alternative to stepping away once in a while. You need to balance work and rest.
The Benefits of Rest
I really can’t overstate the importance of rest. Making time for leisure through activities like meditation, getting outdoors, or engaging in some kind of play can bring about a variety of health benefits—including improving your cognition and productivity.
Play, specifically, seems to bring about big benefits for your productivity and work performance. It’s been shown to improve brain function, which could stave off age-related cognitive decline. (3) Studies have also shown that play relieves boredom, increases creativity, and improves your ability to deal with stress. (4, 5, 6) Those benefits are likely the reason why some organizations have begun implementing “play breaks” during the work day. (7)
Spending your free day outside in nature also appears to confer benefits. Aside from strengthening your immune function and reducing your risk for several chronic illnesses, being outdoors has also been shown to reduce your stress levels. (8, 9, 10)
- Better focus (12)
- Improved cognitive function (13)
- Changes in the areas of your brain responsible for memory, awareness, and self-regulation (14)
What Happens to Your Body during Rest
Our brain activity doesn’t stop when we’re resting. Instead, it engages our parasympathetic nervous system, or the body’s “rest and digest” response. The parasympathetic nervous system lowers heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and stress hormones, balancing out the effects the fight-or-flight response has on your body. (15) Meditation, spending time outdoors, massage, and exercise have all been shown to trigger the rest and digest response. (16, 17, 18, 19, 20)
Where Sleep Fits In
When I say “rest,” I’m not necessarily talking about sleep. Getting enough sleep is also a major part of managing your stress, living a healthy lifestyle, and, ultimately, improving your productivity, but it’s not the whole picture. If all you do is work and sleep—even if you’re getting enough hours of sleep—you’re missing out on the great things that restful free days can spark.
Getting rest means making time to do things you enjoy (that aren’t work related). That could be something active and outdoors, like going for a walk or visiting an amusement park, or it could be passive and quiet, like sitting down with a good book or heading to the spa. The key is making time for activities you enjoy.
How to Balance Rest and Productivity: Make Room for Free Days
Whether you value balanced life or you’re simply trying to maximize your productivity and performance, you need to rest. It’s that simple.
One of the most powerful ways to incorporate more rest into your life is a free day. A free day is a 24-hour period that’s completely free from work, work-related problem-solving, communication, and action. In other words, you’re 100 percent off work. This means not even reading books that might be related to work or spur thoughts about work. Most entrepreneurs and business owners find this almost impossible to conceive of, especially today, when the boundary between work and personal life has been blurred beyond recognition. And how can you take free time when there’s work to be done, money to make, commitments to be kept?
But as I’ve mentioned, rest, rejuvenation, and play are absolutely essential to getting more done. It’s tempting to think that skipping free days and working a little more would lead to better results. But in fact, the opposite is true. And I know this from personal experience.
Now that I’m taking regular free days, I find it difficult to imagine how I would even function without them. I look forward to them throughout the week, and I feel so much better at the end of them.
Four Tips to Make the Most of Your Free Days
If your calendar is regularly booked solid, finding a free can sound pretty impossible. While it does take some effort, it is entirely feasible to add work-free days into your schedule. Here’s how.
1. Schedule Free Days Ahead of Time
If you’re just getting started with free days, I think it’s helpful to schedule and plan them out in advance. That way you won’t be tempted to fall into old habits and start working because you’re not sure what else to do.
2. Go Outside
It might be easier for you to initially do free days outside the house so that you don’t get sucked into familiar distractions.
3. Get Support
Enlist the support of your team, your family, or your friends to hold you accountable. Ask them to gently remind you that you’re on a free day if you begin to slip into work mode again.
4. Set Boundaries
Train your patients, clients, colleagues, and anyone else not to expect any interaction with you that is work related on those free days. Consider using an email auto-reply saying you’re unavailable and turn off your phone, or at least turn off notifications.
What to Do on Your Rest Days
In terms of what you actually do on your free days, that depends on what helps you best rejuvenate. Some people do that with energetic activities. They need to be out and about and on the go all the time, whereas others are just the opposite. They want to relax, listen to music, lie on a beach, or have a good conversation. Some people want to be indoors; others want to be outside in the natural environment. And of course, most people like a combination of passive and active activities. If you’re not sure what to schedule on your free days, experiment a little! Balance out a few passive activities with more active ones. Try out some new hobbies, or pick up the pastimes you haven’t had the bandwidth for. The important thing is to choose activities that appeal to you.
Keep in mind that if you’re not used to free days, they’ll probably be challenging to implement at first, especially because so few people actually take them. But like anything else, the more you do them, the more practice you get, the easier they’ll be and the more satisfying.