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#69 — The benefits of rest, and how to know which activities are restful.
I got the booster shot. The side effects weren’t bad, but they still managed to keep me in bed for the better part of the day. I didn’t mind, given the company — my cats instinctively came and slept nearby, just as they did when I got my second Pfizer shot.
The cats always seem to know when I’m sick, sometimes before I do. Cats aren’t in the habit of expressing concern for their humans, so it’s kind of a rare treat to see them do this. Their bedside presence seems to speed up my recovery, at least mentally. When I wake up in the middle of the night—dazed and full of aches—and I look over to see my cats sleeping nearby, my pillow suddenly feels a little softer, my blanket a bit warmer. I drift back to sleep, dreaming of the aura of healing they cast upon me.
Sleep has always been best medicine for me, but my relationship with it has been rocky. It took many years of rebellion before I finally learned to adopt the basics of sleep hygiene. The most powerful change I ever made was leaving my phone out of the bedroom. Since I made that change, it usually takes just fifteen minutes of reading on my Kindle before I’m dead to the world.
Life is always better when I sleep well. And yet, I still regularly sabotage my own sleep. I started to wonder why that is…
Why Do We Resist Rest?
One culprit that causes us to resist sleep is a phenomenon known as “revenge bedtime procrastination”. We delay sleep as part of a misguided attempt to take back control of our lives. This is particularly true when we don’t have much control of our days.
But the issue is not just that we resist sleep — as a society, we resist all forms of rest, because we have been trained to look with suspicion upon any activity that is not inherently productive. Yet, it is counter-productive to burn ourselves out and deprive ourselves of the rest that we need. It helps no one to simply keep walking until our legs break. We keep walking anyway.
Things might be changing for the better, though. This extended period of quarantine has given many of us an opportunity to re-evaluate many of the entrenched habits of resistance we’ve been carrying with us. Without the commutes constantly eating up our free time, we finally see—in the silence of our rooms—the value of connecting with the world around us, and of being more present.
Slowly, but surely, society may be waking up to the benefits of rest.
Benefits of Rest
A while ago, I read a book called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Pang (Bookshop). It drastically changed my views on the meaning and power of rest. Rest isn’t just about sleeping — it’s about doing all the things that keep our body balanced. It’s about rejuvenating ourselves throughout the day, so we have the energy to do the things we want to do. Some of the key takeaways from the book:
Society undervalues rest, and incentivizes overwork (especially in the United States).
Rest should be deliberate: One should either be focused on working or resting, anything in between is wasteful and draining.
Rest is active: Taking walks and exercising allows us to disengage from direct cognition, which enables our subconscious mind to move freely and creatively on a subject. We can often find solutions just by taking a walk.
Armadillos sleep almost twenty hours a day! And I thought my cats slept a lot…
You can read more takeaways from the book in a note I’ve published here: Rest by Alex Pang.
How To Rest
If we fully believe in the benefits of rest, it can tricky to know what activities restful and what isn’t. Many activities seem like they will be relaxing, but we don’t feel rested after doing them. For example, we may open our phones or flip on the TV with the intention to relax, but depending on what we consume, we can easily end up feeling more drained afterwards. Some activities besides sleep that I find really restful include:
Going for walks in nature
Doodling and drawing with pen and paper
Reading a physical book / on my Kindle
Taking an afternoon nap
You might notice a theme: I find activities restful when I get a break from my devices (which are a constant source of work). That said, just because an activity is restful for me, doesn’t mean it will be for you. You have to pay attention to your own behaviors, and how you feel afterwards. This piece inspired some good questions worth asking yourself:
Does it feel forced? — If there is conscious energy being expended just to get you to do the thing, it’s probably not restful.
Are you thinking about work? — Sometimes you can go for a walk and spend the entire time stressing about work, leaving you exhausted. If possible, we should engage in activities that keep us focused on our experience. If you’re on a walk, you can “catch” yourself overthinking, and then shift your attention to the ground beneath your feet or the trees surrounding you. (Meditation is an excellent practice that builds this muscle of “catching and returning.”)
Are you disrupting your sleep? — If you’re engaging in the activity late in the evening to relax, but it actively “riles you up” and prevents you from getting sleepy, then it’s probably not the best thing to include in an evening routine. A good contrast for myself is TikTok (I feel highly engaged, dopamine-filled) versus Kindle (I get engaged in stories, but will get sleepy over time when reading in bed). This also points to the importance of timing — exercise rejuvenates me in the day, but if I do it too late in the evening, I struggle to fall asleep.
You might also enjoy this piece from TED on the 7 types of rest that everyone needs. In particular, I appreciated its inclusion of social and emotional rest (when we can finally stop “performing” for others).
As we head into Thanksgiving break (for those who celebrate), I hope you’re able to spend some time with family, and get some much needed rest. You deserve it!
P.S. What are your favorite ways to rest? I’d love to hear from you — just reply to this email, or leave a comment on the post.
P.P.S. If you’re looking to get into the Thanksgiving spirit, you might enjoy this gratitude zine from Austin Kleon sharing exercises in a printable PDF.
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Two quick writing tips I shared on Twitter this week:
When you read your past writing and see its flaws, do not cringe.
Be proud of the earnest efforts of your former self. It is because they took those little steps that you are able to stand today.
Take another step now, so one day your future self can smile upon today’s work.
A simple way to edit quickly and effectively:
Once you’ve finished writing a draft, step away. Do something else.
Later in the day, read the draft on your phone. Your phone-scrolling eyes will quickly reveal the boring and confusing parts.
Edit the issues revealed in #2. Be ruthless — your readers will thank you for it.
The editing-on-my-phone approach has worked wonders for me. I use it to edit each and everyone of my newsletters and essays. The reason it’s effective is that we’re all used to skimming on our phones. And that’s exactly how most of your readers will read your writing — casually, with limited attention. It’s important that you read your writing in that context (especially if it’s intended to be consumed online), and not with the generous attention you give to it as a writer when you’re sitting at your desk.
For some writers, the idea of reduced readers’ attention can be discouraging. You might think, “What’s the point, if they won’t even read it properly?” Don’t get caught in that mental trap — readers pay attention, it just has to be earned. All it takes is a little bit of effort to emulate their experience of reading. This is part of the work of empathizing with your reader, and is crucial to good writing.
A few other writing resources you might enjoy:
Diablo: Free Writing Workshops — I’ve taken workshops from Diablo on creative writing as well as flash fiction, and definitely recommend them. They’re currently offering two free workshops (on Dec 5th and Dec 12th), so take advantage if interested! You can also sign up for their newsletter to learn more about their classes, get book recommendations, and more.
Art & Business of Writing Online — A great book by Nicolas Cole filled with wisdom on how to approach writing online. This link takes you to a thread I shared with some of my early takeaways — I felt like I got my money’s worth after the first two chapters. Worth a read!
Writing Well — Julian Shapiro just released a free handbook to writing, targeted towards writers looking to improve their craft, as well as those who fear publishing online.
The Newsletter Nerd Show
I had a lot of fun recording this podcast with Akshaya Chandramouli — we dove into my creative process, living a polymathic life, writing a book, and more.
From Akshaya’s thread about the show:
Salman’s work is soul food for people with multiple creative pursuits. By sharing his journey with you, he shows you that you’re not navigating the creative world alone.
Listen on Spotify:
During the show, I performed a live reading of my fable, The Boat of Stillness. If you missed my reading at Orinda Books a few weeks ago, now’s your chance to hear my vocal rendition of the story!