This article, written by Trish Milburn is from the June 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
With a title like Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, how could I not be intrigued? This book by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang explores how counterproductive overwork is, how we think about rest and how we should think about it.
What is rest?
When you hear the word “rest,” what comes to mind? A nap? Eight hours of sleep a night? A nice vacation? All of those are indeed rest, but according to Pang it goes well beyond that. In some countries, including the United States, overwork has been normalized. We think of rest as something we do after everything else is done.
But are we ever done? Writers certainly aren’t. Since most of us work at home, it’s even more difficult to separate our work and rest. There are always books to write, pages to edit, ads to create, classes to watch, and Facebook groups full of useful information to read. All of this can be overwhelming. We feel as if we’re getting buried under a larger and larger mountain of to-do lists with no opportunity for rest in sight.
Even the answers I received to the “What is rest?” question, while not wrong, reveal that rest often only means a day or two off after making a deadline or taking time for a cup of coffee with a family member. Short breaks can be restorative, but sometimes our minds and bodies need more.
“It took going through massive burnout for me to learn to recognize the differences in physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion,” Jillian Neal says. “I had to learn what triggers all forms of exhaustion for me.”
Pang’s book is filled with stories of how successful people deliberately made time for rest so that they could do their jobs more effectively. Charles Darwin went on hours-long walks that were good for his body and mind as well as subconsciously working out problems. Even during World War II, Winston Churchill was adamant about taking restorative daily naps. These are what Pang calls “deliberate rest,” as are weeks away from all connection to news, or even electronics, and longer sabbaticals.
Barbara Meyers takes daily walks but doesn’t listen to music or podcasts during them. Rather, she allows her mind to wander.
“I have so many thoughts and ideas and mental lists of things to do, it all gets very jumbled in my brain,” Meyers says. “If I add more information (from listening to a podcast), it isn’t rest for me and makes me concentrate more instead of resting my mind.”
Work smarter, not longer
Rest also details scientific studies that show that working fewer hours a day, allowing for significant rest after the work period is over, is the path to better productivity.
A survey of scientists in the 1950s, conducted by psychology professors Raymond Van Zelst and William Kerr, asked about numbers of hours in the office vs. number of articles produced. The resulting data showed an initial steep rise, but this peaked at 10–20 hours per week, then turned downward. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as those working 20 hours a week.
In Pang’s book, Cambridge mathematician John Littlewood was cited as saying there needs to be clear boundaries between the work part of our days and the rest parts so we can get more from each.
“It is too easy, when rather tired, to fritter a whole day away with the intention of working but never getting properly down to it. This is pure waste, nothing is done, and you have had no rest or relaxation.”
Keeping to a set schedule helps our brains become accustomed to what they should be doing when. Katherine Garbera is a big proponent of set schedules. She keeps to a 9–11 a.m. schedule for writing; a walk while leaving her phone behind, 1–1:30 p.m.; editing, 2–5 p.m.; and sleep from 9:30 or 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. She also takes evenings and weekends off and two weeks off after finishing a book.
For Jean Oram, taking off time between books is important.
“I chose a writing career because it is a joyful and fun thing for me,” Oram says. “If I start to feel resentful, I know I need a break.”
Oram says that in the past year and a half, rest has become a bigger part of her schedule out of necessity as she’s dealing with Long COVID symptoms.
Though Pang’s book focuses on more significant rest periods, even being mindful of smaller rest breaks can be beneficial.
“I’ve been experimenting with Pomodoro-style writing where I write for 50 minutes and rest for 10 minutes,” Sylvie Kurtz says. “I go out of the office, walk around the kitchen to get water and do a few yoga poses. It seems to help with the brain drain that comes from writing and spending hours in front of a computer.”
Rest does not always mean sleep, watching TV, or even reading a book. It can actually be quite active, perhaps even physically tiring, but in a good way. Taking part in sports is a good example. You can be a bestselling author at the same time you’re running 10K races. Maybe quilting is your thing. Or cosplay. Any hobby to which you devote a significant amount of time is what Pang calls “deep play.”
Exercise of some sort is not only good for your physical health but also your mental health. Kurtz says that walking outside every day prevents depression from creeping in. Sally Kilpatrick agrees.
“I am physically active, and I always feel worse for wear if I get out of the habit,” Kilpatrick says. “In Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, they argue repeatedly that ‘physical activity is the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle,’ and I have found that to be very true. Reading that book helped me realize why I took a walk every day during quarantine. Running was even better for clearing the mind and tiring the body enough to get a good night’s sleep. I’ve also noticed that if I’m irritated or depressed, I can put on some up-tempo music and dance my way to a better mood.”
Only you can know if you need a longer break than a weekend off or even a week’s vacation can provide. Sometimes you can plan an extended break in a proactive way to prevent deeper burnout, but sometimes these breaks are unplanned even if they are necessary.
“I’m just now emerging from an extended break, having not written in almost two years," Tracy Brogan says. “That wasn’t the plan but after writing a couple of contracted romantic comedies during the darkest days of a post-divorce haze, I felt I had nothing unique left to offer. Like most writers, I feel what my characters feel and I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to put someone (even a fictional someone) through any drama because I had enough of that in my real life. I felt like a failure during most of that time, thinking I was just lazy or that I’d faked my way through all my previous success. Now, with a little distance, some closure, and the determination to create a healthy co-parenting relationship with my ex-husband, sunshine has finally burned away that fog and I’m writing again. I’m re-energized by my decision to write a few historical romances rather than contemporary rom com.”
Kilpatrick took a good five to six months off after her pandemic novel didn’t sell.
“I needed that time so I wouldn’t come back to the laptop frustrated and bitter,” she says.
Refilling the well
Time off gives our brains time to recover and replenishes our creativity and the energy needed to create.
“Sometimes I think the whole ‘write every day’ is a rather dangerous adage,” Kilpatrick says. “One part of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way that really stuck out to me was the concept of a writer’s date. At first, I thought it was counterintuitive to take time off from what desperately needed to be written, but there’s a lot of truth in refilling the well. Sometimes I’ll go on a writer’s date, usually to a historical place where I can learn something. You gotta prime the curiosity pump from time to time.”
Denise Agnew undertook a combination of refilling the well and what she calls “a break without a real break” when she shifted to writing screenplays rather than the number of novels she was before.
“I feel like this has helped my creativity considerably,” she says.
Planning your rest
We’ve all heard stories of authors who were giving 110% until they completely burned out. Overwork and the stress that comes from it should not be seen as badges of honor.
“Rest is not something that the world gives us,” Pang writes. “It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”
Trish Milburn always has a lot of writing, editing, and business irons in the fire, but when she takes Sundays off to read for fun, go for walks, and watch K-dramas, she’s always more productive on Mondays than when she doesn’t.