Rest and Growth

'a mouse sleeping in a comfortable bed' created by DALL-E 3

We all want to accomplish more.

A common reaction that is backed by many productivity systems and personal productivity gurus is to just increase output by increasing the volume of work to be completed in the same time span (something like self-Arbeitsverdichtung).

And while this idea may work up to a point, and you might get more stuff done in less time, I'd argue that it creates some serious side-effects that are not working in your best interest.

Straightforward problems like burnout aside, I'd say the actual problem is one of stagnation.

The obvious result of devoting all your time and energy on getting things done, you will end up with no time for exploring, learning or training. And more crucially, you'll have no time for correcting mistakes you might make when you're trying something that is outside of your established skillset or has an uncertain outcome. Which in turn will lead you to playing it save, keeping you from developing new skills.

And there's another aspect to it: Even if you manage to find some time for exploration and experimentation, you will still find it difficult to grow when your working days just leave enough space for a quick toilet break between video calls.

The reason is lack of rest.

What is Rest?

Rest is - just like sleep - not an off state where nothing happens. On the contrary, rest is an active stance, an activity where your body absorbs stress, and adapts and modifies its makeup to prepare itself for more stress. It is quite the opposite of doing nothing.

If you work until exhaustion and then collapse on your couch in front of Netflix, you're not resting. You're recuperating. If you want to properly rest, you need time and energy to do that.

If you're doing any sports or exercise, you of course know that. You're not going the the gym 7 days a week, right? (right?)

Your training plan (if you have one) probably has a "rest week" every couple of weeks. That's because you're putting your body under serious pressure, and it needs some time to respond to that pressure.

Your brain is no different. It also needs time to adapt to new inputs.

The Connection between Growth and Rest

On a most fundamental level, there are two ways to look at ability: You can either believe in ability as an innate quality - either you have it, or you don't. Or you believe in ability as something you acquire - something you can learn, practice and improve.

The first mindset is what we call a "fixed mindset". The latter is called a "growth mindset". If you follow a fixed mindset, you basically believe in talent. Abilities are something you are born with, and sooner or later, you reach your full potential, and then that's it. It's all in your genes.

A growth mindset argues that although you start off with a set of attributes that somehow define you, you can develop and improve those attributes. While "talent" will still play a role, it doesn't define your possibilities as much.

The interesting thing about this conversation of fixed vs. growth mindset is that it doesn't really matter what idea of human ability might be closer to reality - simply developing a growth mindset makes students progress significantly better than students with a fixed mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset, Rest might just be a necessary evil - sometimes, you just need to sleep, right?

But if you have a growth mindset, resting (and resting properly) becomes a key element of how you structure your progress towards your goals.

Push, then Rest

If you want to grow your abilities, you need to work right at the envelope of your current abilities. Because it is stress that creates the potential for growth. And what could be more stressful than doing something that is just within your skillset?

Staying in that zone is unsustainable, just like going to the gym everyday is. So, after you accumulated enough stress, back off, and rest. Do something else, or do nothing at all, but give your brain the time and space to absorb the challenge and get ready for the next one.

Alternating between strain and rest creates a rhythm that maximises your ability to grow.

Choosing an effective cadence is highly individual. Try both establishing a micro-cadence, braking down your days into multiple strain-rest cycles (you can use something like the Pomodoro technique), and using macro-cycles to alter stress between different areas of interest: If you've ever had a challenging day at work after an equally challenging morning workout, you might have discovered that trying to push your boundaries in more than one area at the time is probably not the best strategy to grow.

Instead, build strain and rest periods like waves across different interests and obligations, maximise rest time in one area while pushing in another.

Summary (TL;DR)

When you want to develop new capabilities, pick up tasks that are at the very edge of what you can currently perform to create stress. Then, allow your body to absorb the stress and adopt to it by giving it enough rest.

Create stress/rest micro cycles throughout your day to avoid overloading, and build macro cycles over longer periods by alternating different growth areas you want to improve.

Published 2023~10~17