How to Rest – The Atlantic

Between making time for work, family, friends, exercise, chores, shopping—the list goes on and on—it can feel like a huge accomplishment to just take a few minutes to read a book or watch TV before bed. All that busyness can lead to poor sleep quality when we finally do get to put our head down.

How does our relationship with rest affect our ability to gain real benefits from it? And how can we use our free time to rest in a culture that often moralizes rest as laziness? Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of several books on rest and director of global programs at 4 Day Week Global, explains what rest is and how anyone can start doing it more effectively.

Listen to the conversation here:

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The following transcript has been edited for clarity:

Ian Bogost: You know, Becca, even though I rest in the sense of going sideways and unconscious at night, I don’t feel like I rest enough. Or maybe that I don’t rest properly. I mean, maybe I don’t even know what rest is, even.

Becca Rashid: Same for me. I feel like between sleep and work, those breaks that I need have never really been incorporated in my life.

Bogost: You know, I was thinking about it, Becca: Rest is really a cornerstone concept in Western civilization. Like, it’s in the Bible. Right at the start of Genesis, there’s supposed to be a Sabbath—a day of rest, a break from making and using to doing something else. And what is that something else? You know, in the religious sense, it’s a time for worship, for God. And in that sense, it’s not like “rest” is a break, exactly. It’s more like a structure, like an organizing principle. Like: Here’s a thing you need in order to make the rest of your life operate.

Rashid: I mean, the mainstream sort of American Protestant work ethic implies that rest needs to be more than just rest. You know, it’s working toward other must-dos. The day of Sabbath is for rest and worship, going to church, serving the community, serving your family. Right?

And if we’re literally talking about sleep as rest, that’s one thing. And many of us probably wish we could find more hours. And studies show only a third of Americans report feeling they got quality sleep.

Bogost: Not surprising.

Rashid: Not surprising at all, with younger adults and women more likely than others to report trouble sleeping. Those groups are actually more affected by their quality of sleep, you know, giving ourselves opportunities to rest. I’m curious about whether we have to justify it to ourselves when we rest as something we deserve instead of something we need.


Rashid: Welcome to How to Keep Time. I’m Becca Rashid, co-host and producer of the show.

Bogost: And I’m Ian Bogost, co-host and contributing writer at The Atlantic.


Pang: At least a space is opening up for thinking differently about the relationship between work and time and productivity, and the place that rest and leisure can have in it.

Bogost: So Becca, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is sort of rest-obsessed. He’s written a few books about the topic, and one is literally called Rest.

Pang: I’m Alex Pang. I run programs and consulting at 4 Day Week Global.

Bogost: But of course, he himself is very productive—writing all these books and talking about them and consulting. And he’s not only got experience, studying this stuff, but living it or trying to.


Bogost: What got you interested in rest?

Pang: I had been interested in the psychology of creativity, and what it is that helps people have insights and sort of interesting ideas.

You know, when you do that work, you really spend a lot of time talking about actually how people are working. Right? You get into the mechanics of their labor and read their notebooks, and that sort of thing. And there are parts of their lives that influence creativity. And one of them is what people do with their leisure time—or with that time that gives your kind of creative subconscious an opportunity to work on problems, even while your conscious mind is elsewhere. And for a long time, you know, we thought of that as unpredictable, because very often it feels that way.

But you know, in the last 20 or so years, there’s been work in neuroscience and psychology that’s helped us better understand what goes on in our minds and our brains when we have those ideas and how certain kinds of rest sort of create a fertile ground for sort of insight and inspiration.

Bogost: So you came to “rest through creativity” in your research on creativity. Were there particular figures? Did you have, like, a role model for creativity and rest that inspired you?

Pang: If I had to choose one, it would probably be Charles Darwin. Partly because, you know, he is a monumentally important figure in the art of history and the history of science.

Bogost: I have heard that.

Pang: Also because he’s someone whose life is exquisitely well documented, right?

Pang: The Cambridge archive has 14,000 letters to and from him, and we can reconstruct with a pretty amazing degree of precision where he was, what he was doing, his daily schedule—and connect that to his creative work. Charles Darwin would work for a couple hours and then putter around in the garden, work some more, and then go on a long walk.

What’s important there is that it means that you are, in a sense, using two sets of creative muscles. There’s your conscious mind—where you’re sort of working to solve problems—but then your unconscious is able to take over and continue thinking about things, you know, often in new ways and exploring sort of new connections or avenues.

Bogost: What are some of the ways that you’ve seen people culturally understanding rest and how it works? You know, especially how it’s different from their initial conception that “rest” means sleeping, or something along those lines.

Pang: One important thing is recognizing rest as exercise and serious hobbies.

Bogost: It’s somewhat an un-intuitive idea of rest that it’s not necessarily related to idleness or laziness. Like, what is rest actually? Maybe that’s the question I want to ask you.

Pang: Yeah. So I think rest is just the time you spend recharging the mental and physical batteries that you spend down working. And, you know, we often think of rest as being an entirely kind of passive thing, right? It happens on a couch, with a bag of snacks in one hand and a remote in the other. But one of the things that working on this taught me was that actually, the most restorative kinds of rest often are more active and more physical. That exercise, hobbies: These are things that can be a source of greater restoration. You know, both in the immediate run—in terms of recharging our batteries for the afternoon—and sort of maintaining creative wellsprings over the course of our entire lives.

Bogost: So Alex, tell me more about what you mean here. What happens when we rest? Like, what are the mechanics of rest?

Pang: Rest is where an awful lot of, sort of, the body’s maintenance work [is done]. The consolidation of memories. You know, the sort of literal cleaning out of bad stuff that builds up on our brain. Brain plaque, and that sort of thing

Bogost: Brain plaque?

Pang: Yeah. So when you sleep, there’s the brain. Of course it has, you know, the neurons and all the cool stuff that fires up in an MRI machine and makes those pretty colors. But there’s also a second system that sort of does the hard maintenance work of feeding the brain, but also taking away toxins and things that build up in it. And that system is kind of dormant during the day when you’re really active.

Pang: But when you sleep, it lights up, activates, and sort of does its thing. And so the theory is that, you know, one of the reasons that bad sleep is associated with things like dementia or later-life cognitive issues is that the system hasn’t had an opportunity over time to do the kind of repair and maintenance work that it would if you were better rested.

Bogost: Brain plaque. I can’t wait to tell my daughter that sleep is like going to the brain dentist.

Pang: There you go.

Bogost: Thank you for that gift.


Bogost: You know, Becca, we tend to treat rest as an indulgence. And that doesn’t seem right. Like, when I think about my friends or my colleagues, everyone seems to be talking all the time about wanting a break: “Ah, you know, if I can only get a break.” But then when they get one, they use it mostly just to recuperate: to, like, recover from all that work. And that kind of rest—that sort of recuperative rest, recovering from, your day or your week or whatever—okay, fine. You know, that seems necessary.

But also that seems kind of bad: culturally, socially, morally even. I hope “rest” is more than that. Like, you know: Good rest would let you partake of your life, and to spend time in that life. It would be restorative rather than just recuperative. Right?

Rashid: Right. And the recuperative rest—I mean, I still have the tendency to make rest into something I must do rather than something I need or my body needs. It’s never been rest for rest’s sake; it’s always been something I have to do.

Rashid: Yes, and especially during the workday. I mean—you know this, Ian—I don’t drink water.

Bogost: This is an ongoing, known problem. Becca. Yes, we’re trying to get you to hydrate.

Rashid: We’re getting better at it. Like, the little things: to just get up from my desk, take a break, go get some water. Like the most basic thing, rest at work feels so inappropriate in a way. Even knowing when I need the rest—or knowing how to do it in a way that feels genuinely restorative and not just to keep working.


So studies tell us that the average knowledge worker loses about two hours a day to overly long meetings. To, you know, inefficiencies or distractions caused by technologies or poor processes.

Bogost: I am shocked to hear this. [Laughter.] It totally sounds normal.

Pang: And so you can get a handle on those three things: meetings, technology, and distractions. You can actually go a long way. And so that means doing things like having better meeting discipline around the length of meetings, agendas—all that stuff that we all know we ought to do, but all too rarely don’t. It also means, very often, redesigning the workday to be more conscious about how you spend your time and having better boundaries between, say, deep focused work versus podcast recordings versus time with clients.

Pang: And then finally, also thinking about how you can use your technology in two ways. First of all, to eliminate distractions, number one. And so that involves things like setting up particular times of day when you’re checking email, but staying off of it for the rest of the time. And then, second: looking for ways in which you can kind of augment your intelligence or your capacity to do your most interesting work. And so that’s doing things like, you know, using AI research assistants or other kinds of tools to help you be more effective at the stuff you love best.


Bogost: What I take away from that, Becca, is the idea that, in America, the purpose of work is to be at work, not to do work. You know, that’s a reasonable criticism, right?

That we’re kind of cosplaying work, rather than actually being effective. Maybe we would be more effective—both in our work lives and our rest lives—if we took those breaks that appear naturally, like that time that appears when a meeting ends early. Like, you don’t need to fill that up with “We’ll just sit here in the meeting because it was scheduled,” or “You know, I’ll just do more email now.” You could just use it for nothing, or for those other activities that would rejuvenate you—like, you could take a walk or procure your favorite diet cola. Just something to give yourself a sort of sense of being in the world. Yeah. Not just to take care of yourself and your body—although that’s part of it—but also to punctuate the work experience so that you can then move on to the next task.

Rashid: Interesting. I think some of that performative pressure makes it easier to feel overworked, because the labor goes beyond just doing your job, completing tasks—but also upkeep some image of a constantly occupied, working person.

Some recent data shows that about 59 percent of American workers are at least moderately burnt out, which is even more than at the peak of the pandemic.

And, employee engagement continues to decline, even though we have things like sabbaticals and things that would ideally prevent burnout; that’s not available across most professions. And most people, again, only take them after they’ve felt overworked or without rest for decades.

Bogost: When it’s too late.

Rashid: You know, decades.

Bogost: Yeah; I mean, there’s got to be some sort of white space between getting up from your desk to get some water and taking a sabbatical for a year, right?


Bogost: Is the only—or the main—purpose of rest to prepare for more work?

Pang: No. And I think it can help us have more productive lives and better ideas, gives us permission to rest in ways that, you know, we might not otherwise. But, you know, there is a very long history across pretty much all cultures and religious traditions about things like the spiritual value of rest, right?

Sort of the idea that there are connections that we can make—or things we can understand about ourselves, our place in the world, the nature of our lives—that only come when we’re resting. Or, you know, when we’re still.

Bogost: Alex, I want to ask you now about sabbaticals. And I wonder if you can start by just explaining to our listeners what a sabbatical is.

Pang: A sabbatical is a period of time with academics—you know, a semester or a year where you take off and often go somewhere else physically. And you are either learning some new set of skills or working on some other kind of, you know, professional development project, right? Another book. I think that the only bad sabbatical is the one that you don’t take.

Bogost: So, what’s the difference between a sabbatical and a vacation? Some of what you’re describing sounds like you take time off; you know, you go somewhere else, or you don’t. And I don’t imagine that many of our listeners want to spend that time recharging for work.

Pang: Functionally, the first difference is that with sabbaticals, you have at least the kind of outline of a plan of something new that you want to learn, or something else that you want to do. Vacations—you don’t go into it with the assumption that you will master some new sort of lab procedure, or, you know, finish that big book that’s been on your desk.

Pang: But I think that in both cases that there can be a recharge. But also, you know: great unexpected insights or new ideas that you can have because you give yourself the time to get away and to have a break.

Bogost: What’s an example of one of those discoveries or new ideas that you’ve seen from sabbaticals?

Pang: My favorite one is Lin-Manuel Miranda. You know, he talks about how he had worked on In the Heights for seven or eight years or so, pretty much nonstop. And he was finally convinced to take a vacation, and that’s when he took along a copy of the Alexander Hamilton biography.

Pang: And he said, “As soon as I gave my mind a break from In the Heights, Hamilton jumped into it.” And something like 20 percent of startups have their origins not when the [founders are] in the lab, or in front of the whiteboard, but when they’re on the beach or on the hiking trail.

Scaling out just a little bit more: People who are both more satisfied in their jobs and do better jobs are our folks who have better boundaries around not working nights and weekends, and also have other things in their lives—whether it’s hobbies or families—that can occupy them.


Rashid: You know Ian, I wonder if what’s made it hard to make rest a habit in my life is the fact that the self-care rituals feel so separate from anything I would naturally do to rest. Like: The sort of cultural depictions of what rest should look like, at least for women, are like makeup tutorials, putting on a face mask and reading a book, or taking a bubble bath. Or whatever social media–induced ritual. But it never really becomes a habit.

Or the thing I naturally go to for rest, versus when I’m not even thinking about it—versus I’ll go sit down at my piano keyboard or pick up my guitar and maybe an hour or two goes by. But it just requires less effort, you know?

Bogost: Interesting; yeah, I mean the habit-changing is a big part of this. Becca, what I hear Alex saying is that to rest effectively, you need to fill that time with meaningful activities. Changing habits is really hard.

Bogost: Do you know this guy James Clear?

Rashid: The guy who wrote Atomic Habits, yes.

Bogost: Atomic Habits: sort of the king of habit-building. You know, millions and millions of copies of this book sold. So certainly there’s something that people find useful in it. And he’s got a lot of tips—but one of them that I find really interesting is that for habits to take, they have to reflect your identity more than your goals.

Rashid: Huh.

Bogost: When you think about habit change, it’s not just like, “Here’s what I want to do; these are the outcomes that I want.” But: “This is the person I want to be”—you know, like a better friend, a more voracious reader. Uh, a more hydrated individual.

Rashid: [Chuckle.] Right.

I’m normally sort of averse to being told how to rest in the “right way,” and I’m not alone. I’ve noticed certain trends online, especially among teenagers—there’s a certain type of rebellion against all of these self-care rules of how to rest, right? You know, there’s this thing called “bed rotting,” which has fascinated me, where teens are, yes, bed rotting.

Bogost: That doesn’t sound good, Becca.

Rashid: It’s fine. The teenagers are fine, but they’re just—

Bogost: —Okay—

Rashid: —maybe they’re doing nothing in bed. You know, scrolling on their phones.

Bogost: I see; okay.

Rashid: All weekend. And that’s sort of the activity.

Bogost: Right, right. But it’s a revolt against the productive rest time, where they’re supposed to be, you know, doing something, doing something else. Having a hobby or a side hustle or a skincare routine.

Rashid: Right. It fascinates me. I mean, I see it as a sort of reclaiming of rest for truly purposeless, like, indulgent leisure.

Bogost: Well, it gets back to these ideas of like: What are the conditions under which rest is even possible? Good rest, restorative rest—like the kind that we’re after. So like, for teenagers: The American Academy of Pediatrics has been calling for later start times for school, especially for high school, for years now. At least since 2014, and long before that, I think. Because teenagers are chronically sleep deprived if they have to wake up at 6 to get to school by 7:30—partly because they go to bed late. Hormonal change, and other sorts of things. But that’s just a minimum requirement to operate; just getting enough sleep. It’s not the end of the line when it comes to rest.

Rashid: So it sounds to me, Ian, to find the time for restorative rest—let alone know what that looks like for you—requires a lot of deprogramming of things that we’ve learned from, you know, our high school age. Of not having enough sleep as a teenager. And, you know, moving toward a place where rest is something that we know how to do, we don’t feel guilty about, and we can actually enjoy, is kind of the goal, right?


Bogost: One of the cases for focus work that you make is early rising—um, getting up early. And I’m going to tell you, Alex, I do not like getting up in the morning. So you’re going to have to sell me on this one.

Pang: First of all, at a practical basis, nobody else is up early. If you don’t like getting up, you’re not going to waste that time. I am less likely to, you know, self-distract at 5 a.m.

Pang: There’s a lovely study that found night owls doing things in the early morning—or early birds working on problems late at night—tend to come up with slightly more creative solutions in those periods.

Bogost: So, Alex, are you saying that this is almost like muscle confusion or something? That mixing it up with your default chronotype—the way that you would typically spend your time—can lead you to use that time more restfully?

Pang: That’s a great way to put it. I think that the one other thing I would add is that this is something that really only works if you practice it and if you prepare. So, prepare in the sense that one of the things that successful early risers will often do is set up everything they’re going to do the night before. Like, you know, write down the couple of things that they’re going to work on; the questions that they’re going to answer.

Pang: So when you are up at what, 5 a.m., you don’t have to make choices about what you’re going to work on, right? That’s already decided. In advance.

Bogost: That makes sense, but do people sometimes take changes in their habits with time too far? Like, I saw this video of a young woman who wakes up at 3:50 in the morning to go to the gym, and it feels kind of like a competition for, you know, effectiveness. “Look how much of the day I’m squeezing.”

Pang: Right. You know, I think that we all have to experiment and figure out what works best for us. I’m someone who can write well in the early morning, but those times when I have gone to the gym or, you know, worked out with my kids who were both athletes in the early morning, I’ve slept the whole rest of the day.

Pang: So it just completely wipes me out. And I think that some people see it merely as a way of stretching out the number of hours that you’re going to work, rather than appreciating that, you know, there really is something about the very early hours of the day that feels different.

Pang: I think there’s a real reason why in monasteries—whether Catholic or Buddhist or what have you—that some of the services are held at 4 or 5 a.m. There is a quality to that time that if you sort of respect and work with, can deliver great benefits to you.


Rashid: So, Ian, I’m sure you’ve heard of flow state.

Bogost: Oh.

Rashid: You know, that feeling of deep concentration that momentarily allows you to feel almost without a sense of time.

Bogost: And it’s characterized by this sense of, like, an alignment of your abilities and the challenges that are presented to you. And that produces this sense of self confidence, and you operate in this almost-virtuosic, automated way, like an athlete in competition.

Rashid: I’m no athlete, but I am interested in how just being in that mindset makes us feel confident. I mean, are you an athlete? Do you have any favorite flow state–type activities?

Bogost: I’m a couch athlete.

Rashid: Okay.

Bogost: Um, napping athlete. No, I mean—to be honest, Becca, I have always been a little suspicious of “flow.” I’m not sure that people should expect to have the ability and the opportunity to, like, operate their lives among clear goals and direct feedback where their capacities perfectly match the circumstances of their tasks and all of that.

Bogost: Like, I’m not sure that they should expect that to happen very often.

Rashid: Interesting.

Bogost: It’s like: Complete absorption is amazing and delightful when it happens. And I don’t feel it very often, you know? Like, I feel it when I’m doing woodworking or Atari programming, but I don’t feel that way when I’m doing the things at which I’m supposedly expert—you know, like when I’m writing or mowing the lawn or something. Those are not flow experiences to me. The time that I spend mowing lawns or hanging out with friends—I don’t want to see them as opportunities to maximize performance.

Rashid: Your mindset in your free time. Yes.

Bogost: Yeah; like, it seems like a surefire way to set myself up for disappointment and to experience less restful time than I would have otherwise. Like, am I getting better at happy hour? You know, that’s just kind of weird.

Rashid: It reminded me of something that felt very akin to flow state—but I would never think about it in those terms—is growing up, I drank a lot of tea with my family.

Tea-drinking rituals are sort of a big thing in Bangladeshi culture. And tea time was the one focused time in the day, now that I look back on it—but it wasn’t with the intention to focus.

Rashid: So, the only task in those few hours was to make the tea, or what we call in Bangla, cha. And the break was really just for conversation, or in Bengali what we call adda, and nothing else. And, you know, the whole afternoon would go by; there wasn’t even this framing. There wasn’t even the mindset to get anything out of it.


Pang: You know, I think the good news about flow is that it’s not something that you’ve got to travel to a mountaintop in order to find. It is something that we can achieve through activities closer to home, or require less investment and less time.

So this is why gardening is one terrific, highly localized example of something that is often deeply engaging. It’s physical, and unless you’re a gardener, it’s probably pretty different from your day job. And offers, you know, opportunities for that sort of immersion in another kind of way of being that can be deeply satisfying—whether it is rock climbing or gardening or playing chess or being musicians, or any number of other things.

Bogost: That makes a lot of sense, Alex, definitely. The idea that doing something different from your day job or your normal practice.

I want to ask you, Alex, about social perception as it relates to the topics that we’ve been discussing around rest and time use. Because it just strikes me that there is this aversion that we have—as Americans in particular—of, you know, laziness. And, like, the person who isn’t working hard.

Pang: It certainly has made it harder to take rest seriously and to sort of carve out a space for it. Both as individuals or within organizations.

We are at a point, I think, where after the pandemic—with people both having to reinvent how they work and having time to rethink the place of work in their lives—a space is opening up for thinking differently about the relationship between work and time and productivity, and the place that rest and leisure can have in it.

The question is how effective or successful we’re going to be at sort of bringing more rest in there.

Pang: But these days, it is common knowledge that some of the most important muscle-building—you know, the consolidation of memories, muscle memory—that doesn’t happen while you’re practicing. It happens while you’re resting. And sports teams now hire sleep psychologists and experts to figure out when you should have downtime.

Pang: And I think that if people for whom being able to be just a little bit more accurate in their three-pointers—or to be a hundredth of a second faster—have recognized the value of rest, then that serves as a really good model, an inspiration, for all the rest of us.

Bogost: Alex, how do you rest?

Pang: So, I’ve become a big fan of naps in the afternoon rather than, you know, one more cup of coffee. When I’m working on a book, I’ll get up super early and write for a couple hours before I take the dogs out for a walk. And the other thing is that in terms of other serious hobbies, I inherited a camera from my dad. And for me, going out and taking pictures—doing photography—is an opportunity to observe the world in a more thoughtful, mindful way. To really, very consciously, slow down to pay attention to what I’m doing. And to try to literally see the world a little bit more clearly.


Rashid: So Ian, I am realizing—from everything that Alex taught us—that time for rest doesn’t mean that we’re immediately going to know how to do it. It’s going to require a new kind of habit formation, right? Like, we have to learn how to relax. How to restore ourselves in a way that does feel active and isn’t just in this habitual cycle of, you know, “I’m going to spend my whole day at work.” Maybe I go to the gym before, and after that, I need to eat to survive.

Bogost: Yeah. He tells us he likes to nap. But that’s not the end; that’s just the start of the restful life. It would be a huge mistake to wait until retirement, if indeed it ever comes, in order to start.

Rashid: And there’s a way that we have to be conscious about when relaxation starts to feel truly like you’re not engaged with your life in the way that you want to be. Just because it’s off time doesn’t mean that you’re not in your life anymore. You’re not spending your time the way you actually want. It doesn’t mean you have to lay—what did you say?—sideways and be unconscious.

Rashid: There’s a different kind of restorative rest when I go over to a friend’s house and play with her kids, and I see her journey as a parent. I’m, like, building Legos with a three-year-old and, you know, chasing them around the house as a dragon. Things I normally don’t get to do.

Bogost: Yeah, if your rest time is time that you invest in actively doing something—

Rashid: Mm hmm.

Bogost: —your usual affair, then that’s a sign that you’re on the right track.


Bogost: That’s all for this episode of How to Keep Time. This episode was hosted by me, Ian Bogost, and Becca Rashid. Becca also produces the show. Our editors are Claudine Ebeid and Jocelyn Frank. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Our engineer is Rob Smirciak. Rob also composed some of our music. The executive producer of audio is Claudine Ebeid, and the managing editor of audio is Andrea Valdez.


Rashid: The only time I really reach flow state, though, is, like, when I’m eating.

Bogost: That’s perfect. Yeah. Noodles. It’s all about the noodles.

Rashid: I’m a big noodle person as well.

Bogost: I like flow when it applies to ramen.

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