How Rest Produces Excellence


One of Improving’s core Pillars is Excellence. We define excellence as a consistent habit, and not an occasional act. Practically that means we don’t call it excellence to deliver at a high rate in the short-term and them fall off when the pressure isn’t there anymore. Instead, we want to be continually ratchetting up our delivery at a sustainable pace over time. And truly this is harder to achieve, but the results speak for themselves. now, just like any large machine needs maintenance to keep producing, so too will maintaining this kind of excellence. Only the ‘machine’ that needs tuning and maintenance isn’t some car, or mammoth excavator… it is you.

When the pandemic shifted the nature of our work, most of us lost the normal boundaries around our time. Work-Life balance, so-called, was thrown out of whack. And no wonder, with a five-minute commute to your desk, it can become hard to mentally separate from work. Moreover, that fear and stress probably led many of us to overwork, trying to keep things going during hard times. But if we clench and push and sprint, and never take a moment to breathe, to slacken the pace, what do we get? The pop-word for that lately is ‘burn out’. And it’s come in droves. When so much of our value in society is attached to what we do, our labor can consume all that we are.

If we were training for a marathon, we wouldn’t be pushing for speed. We’d be aiming for distance. We’d cultivate the ability to listen to our muscles, to adjust the pace so we can win the race. Critically, you don’t win the race by stopping. You win a marathon by making it to the end, at an uncommon pace! You cannot afford to burn-out early in the race because you bolted off the start-line. Neither can you just stop and take a nap, like a proverbial hare. Instead, our answer lies somewhere in the middle, in some action we can take which build back our reserve to keep going.

One of the common misconceptions of rest is that it is an ‘inaction’, or the lack of an action. That we can only ‘rest’ if we get to a point where we can 'drop everything’ or wait for everything to ‘stand still’. And frankly, this basically never happens. Adult life always has some commitments we need to attend to. At the minimum maintaining ourselves through grooming, housing, eating etc. Out of this kind of misconception we can fall into the idea that sitting around binging Netflix is rest, because it involves sitting around doing ‘nothing’. While intentionally watching a show you’ve been eager to see might count as rest. Mindlessly zoning out to the TV equivalent of junk food is not.
The key to real Rest is the restoration of your reserves. That feeling of life returning to you. If watching a show does that for you, well and good. But it might be an intentional action, rather than a mindless happenstance. Rest does not naturally happen on its own, like sleep does. Instead, some intentional selection and protection is necessary to build the space for rest. A natural question at this point might be ‘How do I do that?’ How do you protect time for yourself? How do you find and cultivate the activities which rebuild your reserves? I would propose we start simple. Do you have permission to rest?

One of the critical components for rest is the permission to ourselves to accept it. Our culture is often deeply focused on work. A lot of our identity gets wrapped up in what we do. To find and accept real restoration, we will need permission from ourselves to take it. Here, I’d like to revisit excellence as a consistent habit. Rest is a critical element in maintained performance. We can think of rest as an investment or maintenance paid to keep our performance high.

With that concept in place, finding action which are restorative becomes an exercise in introspection. We often call those repeated restorative actions called hobbies. But it’s not just that. We are human. Our needs range beyond achievement and autonomy. We desire connection, purpose, and appreciation. So, in addition to habits which we can practice alone, we should also look to cultivate friendships and other close relationships. Cultivating meaningful connections takes time, just like practicing a hobby.
Touching on time, we can begin to answer the ‘How do I do that’ part. And the shortest answer is to get good at honoring appointments with yourself. If you know what actions might be restorative, book some time on your calendar this Saturday or even one of the evening’s this week to do it! And then when the time comes, don’t make excuses, or allow other lesser matters take its place. You might be tired, try to do it anyway. You might not succeed the first time or two. But keep trying, keep that commitment to yourself. You may find in pushing through that your strength begins to return despite initial trepidations.

Take some time each week, as you look ahead to what you must do and book some time with yourself to take restorative action. Plan it. Review it. Improve it. Self-care is a necessary investment for producing your highest service!

A craftsman knows when and how to care for his tools. He does this regularly, because maintaining his tools allows him to maintain his ability to service with quality and distinction. We have no reason to treat ourselves, our minds, as any less than our tools. We only have one set of hands, one mind to use. We must care for them as such. That doesn’t mean we need to cultivate vast blocks of do-nothing time though. Instead, we must be intentional in choosing actions which restore us. These Restorative Actions will be different for each of us, but vital for all of us. So, as you take on this week, take some time to think about which actions you can intentionally plan and take which will restore you, and enable you to continue to deliver with excellence!

This article first appeared on Improving’s Thoughts page on May 24, 2022.