7 ways to improve productivity by practising ‘active rest’ – 6min read

Busyness, burnout and anxiety have been recognised problems since the industrial age and have now been sent into overdrive by the digital revolution. We consider 7 ways to ‘actively rest’ your way to greater productivity.



1. Hobbies

2. Exercise

3. Mindfulness

4. Solitude

5. Sleep

6. Reading

7. Sabbaticals


The digital age and the need for rest


Maybe you’ve just shaken off end-of-year fatigue and stepped back into the office with renewed energy, only to find that tiredness is already setting in again after a few weeks back at work, or you’re now nearing year’s end.


In our attempts to be more productive, we tend to opt for busyness and ‘putting in more hours’ rather than engaging in more regular active rest.


Being single-minded in our focus and productive in our daily dealings are becoming increasingly difficult in the digital age. But as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang points out in his latest  book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, it is certainly not a new problem.


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Not a new problem


Some of us think of leisure activities like reading fiction, tennis or playing bridge as enemies of productivity and creativity but Pang’s book provides an empirical argument in favour of more limited working hours and greater understanding of active or deliberate rest as a means of raising creativity and productivity. 


Pang’s quick to point out that busyness, and the anxiety that accompanies it, has been part of the human struggle at least since the dawn of modernity and has now merely been sent into overdrive by the digital revolution.


He notes influential 19th century figures lamenting the forgotten art of rest, and urging America’s work-obsessed to embrace the gospel of relaxation in pursuing productivity.


“One of the early twentieth century’s most consistent critics of chronic busyness and overwork was one of the most unexpected: Bertie Forbes, the pioneering business journalist and founder of Forbes magazine.” 


Forbes anticipated Pang’s recent research, recognising a recurring theme as he studied industrialists, bankers, and inventors who shaped modern industrial and corporate America: after periods of burnout, these industry leaders restored their mental and physical energies by adopting recreational habits.



“Rest doesn’t just restore mental and physical energy, but — when taken in the right ways — can stimulate innovative thinking and sustain creative lives.”

Bertie Forbes, Founder: Forbes Magazine




7 ways to improve productivity by practicing active rest


“How we spend our non-working hours determines very largely how capably or incapably we spend our working hours,” Forbes concluded.


There are various ways to spend non-working minutes, hours or holidays engaging in deliberate, productive rest.



Here are seven ways to practice active rest in a manner that can restore mental and physical energy, and stimulate innovative thinking:



1. Hobbies

A Harvard Business Review study set out to investigate why leaders make time for passionate leisure interests in their already impossibly busy schedules, concluding that it helps them cope with the ever-increasing demands of the top job.


The hobbies of CEOs interviewed included a range of activities like DJing, piloting, marathon running, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, sticker collecting and playing guitar in a band.



Regardless of the hobby, its value lay in how it provides detachment from work like nothing else can. It is essential for “stopping that constant background mulling… (that cannot be provided by) simply relaxing on the couch.”



2. Exercise

The effects of regular physical movement on sustained mental well-being are easily understood and generally accepted. The right exercise releases stress and stiffness in our bodies while any exercise produces those feel-good endorphins which lifts our mood, counteracting symptoms of mild depression. It provides that great feeling of returning to your desk with a clear mind and fresh perspective.


Exercise through sport – team sport in particular – provides the further opportunity to sharpen certain leadership and social skills, very valuable in the working environment.


Interestingly, something CEOs of major corporations shared when talking about their hobbies, was that participating in activities like sport kept them humble. It means that they participate in contexts where they aren’t necessarily experts and have to fulfil the same duties as all other team members.



Click here for a help guide to The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise.



3. Mindfulness


Simply speaking, mindfulness is a practice of identifying and disengaging from distracting, or anxiety inducing, thought patterns. It is the act of stepping away from the noise you’re caught up in so that you may re-engage a situation with a greater clarity of mind.


“(Mindfulness) allows one to pause amid the constant inflow of stimuli and consciously decide how to act, rather than react reflexively with ingrained behavior patterns. Mindfulness, therefore, is perfectly suited to counterbalance the digital-age challenges of information overload and constant distraction.” – Greiser and Martini, Unleashing the Power of Mindfulness in Corporations



Read The Boston Consulting Group’s full report: Unleashing the Power of Mindfulness in Corporations and The Harvard Business Review’s article on What really makes Mindfulness work.



4. Solitude


Henri Nouwen thought of solitude as ‘the furnace of transformation’ without which ‘we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.’


Solitude is the discipline of creating a space to encounter yourself, removed from the exhaustive noises drowning out self-awareness.


Kethledge and Erwin speaks of a ‘productive solitude’, necessary for clarity and conviction of purpose. “Solitude is not necessarily physical separation from others, or togetherness with nature, it can be found as readily while sitting alone in a restaurant.”


Solitude is intentionally distinguishing yourself from the noise of the collective, so that you can re-engage these shared spaces with a unique, creative vision.



Read Brett and Kate McKay’s in-depth article on Solitude and Silence by clicking here, or for more on Kethledge’s and Erwin’s Lead Yourself First: Inspiring leadership through solitude click here.



5. Sleep

Yes, sleep is indeed an activity. We do not simply fall asleep, it takes careful planning. It is an active form of rest towards productivity.


Research shows the negative impact screen-time has on our sleeping patterns and consequently on functioning optimally. Again, mobile devices are merely inflating a problem we have been struggling with for a few centuries now. Our natural sleeping habits have been interrupted ever since artificial light allowed for night-time activity to increase, decreasing the time we dedicate to rest.



Learn How strategic sleeping and napping can help you prevent burnout and see what a Simple Pre-sleep routine entails.



6. Reading


A classic novel or good biography, preferably in print, is a brilliant antidote to digital addiction. It invites you to engage with and follow a single story line. There is no exciting next, more sensational headline or hyperlink to distract you along the way, simply a single narrative in which you immerse yourself.


Studies done among student groups (Gustavus Adolphus College and Health Libraries Group) reveal that taking time out for recreational reading predicts better academic success and that being immersed in narratives develop empathy towards and an understanding of ‘the other’.



Find out more about how reading enables you to experience more sensations, provides plenty of mental stimulation, reduces stress and improves memory by clicking here.



7. Sabbaticals


Sabbaticals are on the rise, and they are good for you and your organisation. And it doesn’t have to be something only CEOs get to enjoy.


It should not be confused with a super long vacation. Remote Year blog describes it as ‘an active pursuit of purpose’. Like the discipline of a weekly sabbath, it is not about doing as little as possible, but about exchanging activities you find draining for ones that revive you. It may include longer and more regular sleep but certainly isn’t limited to that.


Popular types of sabbaticals include: volunteer work, writing projects, reconnecting with extended family and old friends, further education, starting a side hustle, developing new practical skills, exploring new networks.


Sabbaticals aren’t something everyone is able to enjoy on a regular basis, but it’s certainly worth thinking through how shorter, more regular periods of reinvigoration could be worked into your schedule.


Find out why Sabbaticals are good for employee and employer alike and discover 12 sabbatical ideas that will help you make the most of it.



Some of these active resting disciplines can also be implemented during working hours. The idea is to establish rhythms of rest into your day, week, month and year.


Are there any of these activities you regularly engage in already? Are there anyone or two you can incorporate into your schedule?



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Read also: 10 habits successful sales reps incorporate into their daily routines