The thing about scrolling through social media is that it often feels like it should be a restful activity. It even looks like one. You’re barely moving, after all; you might even be lying down. And yet when is the last time you closed Twitter feeling refreshed?
In case you haven’t yet heard, rest is important. It’s when our bodies repair and grow; our brains become smarter and more creative; and our minds replenish willpower and gain emotional control. Rest is so important to working in a happy, healthy, and sustainable manner that we’d be wise to think of it not as something separate from doing good work, but rather, as an integral part of doing good work; sometimes, not working is the work.
But there is a science — and art — to resting well, and not all forms of kicking back are created equal. It turns out that lots of the activities we think are restful may actually leave us feeling more tired and stressed.
Before we get into the best ways to rest, it’s instructive to agree on a common definition of what rest even is. Most researchers agree that rest is a physiological state during which your innate fight-or-flight stress response, or sympathetic nervous system, subsides in favor of a more relaxed condition. Your heart rate and blood pressure come down, and your shoulders usually follow. Psychologically, rest is considered a shift from deliberate and effortful thinking — for example, straining to solve a problem or trying to figure out the best way to communicate a complex topic — to a more passive state, sometimes characterized by mind-wandering or zoning out.
While both “stress” and “rest” are somewhat subjective — a five-mile run might be a restful activity for one person and a stressful one for another — there are a few ingredients that are essential to any truly restful activity.
You aren’t exerting self-control. At first, it might take some willpower to resist worrying about work or other seemingly pressing issues, but once you’re in the midst of a nice bout of rest, it should feel pretty easy. Trying really hard to rest — for example, forcing yourself to listen to music and breathe deeply when all you really want to do is respond to emails — defeats its purpose. Either find an activity that more easily lets your mind drift away (more on that below), or just respond to the dumb emails and try relaxing afterwards.
You aren’t consciously thinking about your work or other issues that may be weighing on you. Perhaps your subconscious mind is still connecting dots and problem solving in the background, but your conscious awareness is not on your work — instead, it’s floating freely. Likewise, a restful activity can’t be one that’s triggering anxiety. (See: cable news or a polarizing, doomsday Twitter feed.)
You aren’t disrupting your ability to fall and remain asleep, which is the ultimate form of rest. As for two of the developed world’s favorite evening activities: If watching television (though not the news) allows you to check out, and doesn’t interfere with your falling asleep, then by all means go for it. Same goes for a glass of wine. But beware: Studies show that if consumed within a few hours prior to bed, both can interfere with sleep — the culprits being blue light from the former and alcohol from the latter. If you are struggling to fall or stay asleep, it’s probably best to eliminate late-night TV and your nightcap.
Plenty of activities meet the above criteria for rest, but a few in particular come with strong evidence of benefits.
Walking: In a study aptly titled “Give Your Ideas Some Legs,” researchers from Stanford University found that individuals who took a short (6 to 15 minute) walking break increased creative thinking by 40 to 60 percent, as compared to those who remained seated at a desk. At first, they speculated that increased blood flow to the brain was the primary reason for walking’s benefits. But it appears the benefits might also emerge from the interplay between walking and attention: mainly, walking requires just enough coordination to occupy the parts of the brain responsible for effortful thinking, allowing us to more easily zone out and mind-wander, both of which are associated with creativity and insight.
Hanging out with friends. The ratio of the hormones testosterone to cortisol acts as a good indicator of stress and recovery. Testosterone is associated with growth and rejuvenation whereas cortisol is associated with stress and degradation — so the higher the ratio, the better. Studies have found that following stressful periods — like a competitive sporting event, for example — individuals who kick back and relax with friends experience a much quicker rebound in their testosterone to cortisol ratio. Other research shows that social connection helps to shift the nervous system into a restful state and releases hormones that have anti-inflammatory properties, like oxytocin and vasopressin.
Experiencing nature. Time spent in nature is associated with more relaxed physiological and psychological states — even just looking at pictures of natural settings for a few minutes has been shown to increase creative thinking. Writing in her book The Nature Fix, Florence Williams suggests that “nature lulls us with soft fascination, helping to rest our top-down, direct attention faculties.”
Hiking. Combine the above three strategies! Group forest walks have been found to decrease stress hormones and attenuate virtually every part of the fight-or-flight stress response. For the full effect, leave your smartphone behind (or at least keep it turned off if you feel the need to bring it). I’ve never met anyone who regretted a digital-device-free hike with friends.
Open-monitoring meditation. Pay close attention to the sensations you are experiencing in various parts of your body. You might close your eyes and focus deeply on the feeling of your feet against the ground, your hamstrings contracting and then relaxing, your stomach rising and falling with each breath, your heart beating, etc. Studies show that beginning at just ten-minutes open-monitoring meditation is effective in promoting psychological recovery.
Sleeping! The obvious one, but still: No form of rest is as powerful. During sleep, your body repairs and grows and your mind retains, consolidates, and connects the information that you were exposed to during the day. Short naps (10 to 30 minutes) can give you a boost in energy and creativity, but nothing can replace the massive importance of sleeping seven to nine hours every night. Put simply: Sleep is one of the most productive things you can do.
When it comes to how much you should rest, though there are no straightforward guidelines, a good rule of thumb is to balance stress with rest. The more stress in your life, the more you should offset it with rest. Another good way to think about rest is to mimic “interval” training throughout your days, by alternating between bursts of intense, deep-focus work and short breaks.
If you want to prioritize rest (and you should!), be careful not to fall for a common trap, one that leaves many well-intentioned people believing they’re resting but never feeling too well-rested. The activities that may seem like rest are often far from it. Trade in couch time and screens for walking, nature, mind-wandering, and hanging out with friends. Doing so may seem hard at first, but once you get going, you’ll feel a lot better.
Brad Stulberg’s new book is Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive With the New Science of Success. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.