A friend sent me this article about Millennial Burnout [a 40-minute read] and it got me thinking about how we’ve internalised the feeling that we should be working all the time. When did we start feeling so guilty for taking a break? Why do we think rest is a sign of weakness, of not wanting it enough, of not being good enough?
And don’t tell me you don’t feel like that, at least occasionally! Or tell us all your secret!
Because no matter how much I understand the logic of taking breaks, I still find myself feeling guilty sometimes. Chances are, you’ve thought about taking a break at some point and found yourself thinking “do I really deserve one?” and/or “I could be working on something else right now.”
Fear – We as humans are usually afraid. Our egos are constantly at work trying to keep us safe. Fear is one of the strongest reasons for our nonstop work. We are afraid of losing our mojo, we are afraid of becoming lazy and irresponsible. We are afraid of failing.
Myths – We are surrounded by implicit and explicit messages about the value of work. We allow ourselves to believe that if we only work that bit harder or a bit longer, we’ll make it. We believe that we SHOULD be perfect.
When we’re in this place of guilt - and let’s face it, shame - we stop thinking rationally. Our perspective gets tied to the “shoulds” and unwritten rules and guidelines that we unwittingly set for ourselves. We pride ourselves on on being dedicated to our work, so we set the unachievable standard that you need to be constantly working, 24/7. We link working on weekends with extra effort, and link breaks and rest as a sign of sloppiness. This irrational thought pattern makes you feel guilty about resting, even if you know that rest is important. This irrational guilt is a way of you being a demanding and unreasonable boss to yourself. Would you want to work for you?
Let me make the case for taking a break. Regular ones, in fact.
The basic Rest-Activity Cycle plays out in 80–120 minute cycles non-stop, day and night. It is most detectable during sleep, when we move from non-REM sleep to REM sleep and back, over and over again throughout the night.
But it is also present in subtler forms throughout the day and this is our focus, the waking rest-activity cycle.
When correctly attuned to our biological rhythms, we experience about 90 minutes of activity followed by 20 minutes of rest - the ultradian healing response - with a full cycle lasting 110 minutes or so, cycled over and over throughout the day. Everybody is different, however, so one full cycle for you could last anywhere from 80–120 minutes.
The problem arises when we ignore these rhythms and try to maintain constant activity throughout the day, failing to heed our regular need for a break.
When we need a rest, our bodies sends us clear signals such as fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness, and loss of focus. Mostly, we choose to override these. To do so, we find artificial ways to pump up our energy: caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and, more often than not, our body's own stress hormones -- adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
If we work at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, we begin to draw on these emergency reserves to keep us going. Effectively, that means we move from parasympathetic to sympathetic arousal -- a physiological state more commonly known as fight or flight.
Many of us have become addicted to the adrenalin rush generated by our own stress hormones. Being wired 24/7 digitally also keeps us wired physically and emotionally.
We've convinced ourselves -- and we've been convinced by the cultures we work in -- that this is how we need to work to get it all done.
The problem is that more, bigger, faster generates value that is narrow, shallow, and short-term.
One consequence of relying on our stress hormones as a source of energy, for example, is that the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down in the physiological stress response. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly, reflectively or imaginatively.
The counterintuitive secret to sustainable great performance is to live like a sprinter. In practice, that means working at your highest intensity in the mornings, for no more than 90 minutes at a time, and then taking a healing break.
Taking breaks makes us more productive, more creative, and more open to new ideas.
Work is going to always demand more and more from you. In order to be able to keep up with the demands of work in the long term, our health is essential. We need rest to recharge and recuperate, to detox our minds with the anxiety and worries, and to make us feel more well-rested and pumped up again. Rest can help us feel more inspired, clear our minds to be more creative, and overcome the roadblocks we get stuck throughout the week. Rest is what make us better than before, and ready to take up another week of challenges at work and hustling our way through our to-do list.
Of course, taking a break is about more than 20-minutes here or there. It’s about good quality sleep, it’s about days off and holidays. It’s about having time for personal development and spiritual growth, time for play and fun, time for friends and family and romance. It’s about having time and space for nothing in particular.
Taking a break is about more than just being good at what you do.
Life is about more than work.
We must be wary of tying our sense of self-worth too tightly to our work and careers. Like anything else, our work will have its ups and downs. I know I don’t want my happiness and wellbeing to reliant on my work.
Balance is what keep us going. We cannot choose to only look at our careers as the only priority in our life. You are so much more than your job title, the figure in your bank account, or the number of followers you have on social media.
Unhealthy guilt or shame says “I’m sorry...I’m a bad person”. It comes from a place of lowered self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness. I’m here to tell you that you are not a bad person. That you are worthy. That nothing you can do or say in this world makes you less worthy. We are all born into this world equally worthy. What changes as we grow up? Nothing. Just the stories we tell ourselves.
You don’t need to do anything to deserve a break. Yes, there will always be something else you could be doing - somehow the to-do list never gets any shorter. And you absolutely deserve a life full of love and joy and suffering - because it’s all part of the package.
I know I’ve drifted away from practical tips on taking a break. Because I see too many people who feel guilty about creating rich full lives and then enjoying them. Because I can give you all the practical tips in the world but they won’t be worth a damn until you believe that you’re worth it.
And now I sound like a makeup ad.