I think it’s common knowledge that working free of interruptions is important. There are plenty of apps or built in functions on our devices to help us focus on work and productivity. Most of us also acknowledge that to in order work well and stay holistically healthy, we need to rest.
But how well are we resting?
Early this year our editor, Caitlyn, recommended a book called Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In a Distracted World by Cal Newport. I’m always looking for advice to increase productivity, so I excitedly checked it out.
Unsurprisingly, much of this book was about the importance of and tips for deep, focused work, and as valuable as this section was, it wasn’t my biggest takeaway.
Surprisingly, the point that Deep Work opened my eyes to the most was the value of resting without distractions.
Cal Newport says that distractions during rest negatively affect us, especially our minds, as they do during work.
It had never occurred to me before and honestly how could it? In our current culture we’re constantly inundated with stimuli thanks to having the internet in our hands. From our work to our social life, we’re told to be constantly “on” so that we don’t miss out on the latest news, trend, or opportunity.
In a society that places human value on accomplishments, we’re fed the message that to have self-worth we need to be producing, creating, finishing, winning. So we learn to take our work home with us, to live with our phones buzzing every ten minutes, and to feel guilty or anxious when we’re not doing.
I don’t know if it’s because I struggle with laziness but the act of “constantly doing” doesn’t appeal to me, so reading about true, uninterrupted rest in a book all about being more productive gave me much hope.
So after reading Deep Work, I implemented changes to better rest without distractions, and my life has taken a positive turn because of them.
Keeping work and rest on separate devices
The first change I made was to delete productivity apps from my phone and tablet. If I could access them on the computer, they were gone. I also removed all productivity widgets from my home screens.
I used to think I needed these to be responsible, but all they did was keep my to-do list at the front of my mind day and night. I was continuously reminded of what tasks were coming up, or worse, what tasks I’d fallen behind on. It only stressed me out and I couldn’t rest guilt free.
When I was trying to relax, my mind was constantly looking towards the future, most of the times anxiously, instead of being present in the moment and recharging. Sometimes I would even stop resting to “be productive” but if I was running on fumes the extra work I did wasn’t even that great.
Keeping all things “work” or “productivity” off the devices I use for leisure and recreation now helps me rest in the moment without being anxious about the future.
Taking a break from stimuli and embracing boredom
The next set of apps I deleted were mobile games. Apart from the fact that they sometimes distracted me from responsibilities, they also ironically were preventing me from fully resting, though I didn’t realize how until after reading Deep Work.
I also took off all notifications across my devices except for text message and phone call alerts on my phone. (In my blog, Surrendering to God Online, I mentioned keeping notifications on for Instagram to help me curb my unhealthy habit of frequently opening the app to see how my posts did. But I’m now recanting that. I think it’s still a valuable idea for those who want to break the same habit, but otherwise I now suggest turning them off)
This summer we did a reel series on our Instagram about the 7 types of rest. One was about sensory rest which mentioned that a “lack of sensory rest results when your brain takes in more information than it can process” and some signs of sensory exhaustion included “high levels of excitement or feeling ‘wound up’, anxiety, and an inability to relax.”
This is all very familiar to me. Keeping my mind busy with stimuli, whether a mobile game or alert, didn’t let it recharge and as with the productivity apps made me anxious. I always needed to be experiencing something. I couldn’t be bored.
But Cal Newport challenges readers to embrace boredom because when we avoid it, we make it hard for our minds to focus. He says, “once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it.” And it’s so true! Instead of letting my mind “take a breath”, I kept packing it with information.
I’ve always had trouble with quieting my mind, especially during prayer (which I’m learning more and more should be a time to rest with God) and now I understand why. I can’t quiet my mind because I’ve trained it to do the opposite, to seek noise.
Now that I’ve taken away those distractions, I’m finally letting my tired brain rest when needed. I’m training my mind to be still, and my life is much more peaceful.
Deeper Rest = Better Work = Deeper Rest
If you’ve read about my struggle with time management, you’ll know stress makes me procrastinate, which puts me in a vicious cycle of both unproductivity and unrest. The anxiety these distractions produced fueled this pattern.
But silencing the noise has freed me of a self-imposed pressure to not disappoint others and myself. And this peace has improved my work.
I’m working with more intensity when I’m in productivity mode because I now prioritize the times when and spaces where I rest. I can’t work halfheartedly as I used to because I no longer let myself use my rest time for anything other than rest.
Some days, extra responsibilities pile up so I do work overtime then, but when I finish and rest, I rest with the same undistracted focus as when I worked.
Thanks to this, I had an epiphany. Many of my distractions during rest were rooted in guilt that I hadn’t worked well. I had no idea this was an actual psychological phenomenon until I read Deep Work. Cal Newport mentions the Zeigarnik effect which is the “ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.”
When I procrastinated on my responsibilities, my mind couldn’t let them go when I tried to relax. So I think to rest well without distractions we need to work hard, too. But I don’t mean to the point of exhaustion. Doing our best each day is enough. Even if we have unfinished tasks left on our to-do lists at the end of a workday, knowing we gave our all gives us peace to rest guilt-free. Our minds can relax in the present with less anxiety about past regrets or future worries.
I understand that not everyone can implement these same changes, but I think we can all try to make resting deeply and fully more of a priority. So if these ideas don’t work for you, I hope you’ll find the process that does, so your mind and heart can heal from pressures and struggles.