How to escape your packed schedule and take a rest from work

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When Ali Kahlert was diagnosed with a kidney infection last month, she gratefully accepted an IV at urgent care and dutifully swallowed antibiotics as prescribed. It was the last bit of the doctor’s orders that threw her for a loop: rest.

"I was starting to climb the walls. I need to do something," says the 30-year-old graduate student in Minneapolis. After one day on the couch—napping, sewing, watching YouTube videos—she’d had it. She climbed the stairs to her home office and tackled some school work and chores, until a stabbing pain of protest came from her kidney. 

"The work is looming," she says of why resting feels so hard. "I know that even though I’m sick or I can’t do something, the world does not stop for me."

Americans have worn their long work hours and reverence for productivity as a badge of honor for years. Where Europe has siestas and vacations that last all of August, we have working sick days and paid time off that never gets used. This fall, many of us seem to be on overdrive: on the road again for business conferences, dashing from the office to the in-person school play to the happy hour, getting felled by the myriad viruses that have returned with a vengeance.

Woman working from home, these days Americans are putting more on their plate than ever and struggle to take a mental break. (iStock / iStock)

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Maybe we need to take a break.

"The world no longer gives you time to rest. You gotta take it," says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, who advises companies about implementing four-day workweeks. Pausing will energize you physically and mentally, he says.

If you have flexibility—say, you work from home—he recommends chasing a two-to-four-hour block of work with one to two hours of downtime, including a 20- or 90-minute nap.

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If, like for so many of us who answer to a boss, that kind of schedule seems a fantasy, you have to protect the time you’re off the clock, Dr. Pang says. Try embracing a hobby, something you look forward to, that can occupy your nights and weekends and give you permission to say no to overwork and other draining stuff. The best way to decompress isn’t necessarily sitting on the couch with a bag of chips, he adds.

"More cognitively challenging things can often do a better job of taking your mind off work," Dr. Pang says, "so that you’re not ruminating about that conversation you had with your boss."

For Tony Metze, a Lutheran pastor in West Columbia, S.C., hopping on a bike is the thing that gets his brain to finally stop whirring.

"You’ve got one single focus," he says. "Enjoy this breeze. Feel the ability of your body to move this thing along at 12 to 15 miles per hour."

Every Sunday afternoon, after leading his church in worship, he tries to steal away for an hour on the trails, feeling a sense of calm as the trees whiz by.

SANTA FE, NM – AUGUST 4, 2017: A couple ride their bicycles along Canyon Road, home to dozens of art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images) (Robert Alexander/Getty Images / Getty Images)

"I really think that’s what the sabbath is, trying to get away from the busyness," he says. 

Alex Dahl, a 26-year-old in Norwood, Ohio, has started adopting his own personal sabbath. One day a week, usually Saturday, he reserves for whatever he wants. He takes a trip to a local plant store, plays videogames, watches his fish swim in their tank. He ignores chores and declines family obligations that don’t sound like fun.

"I spend so much of my week dedicated to doing things that make me feel stressed out and generally kind of unhappy," he says. "I just needed a day where I’m, like, you know what, screw it. I don’t care if the dishes get done."

He knows some might view it as lazy and hedonistic. He suspects his extended family members are annoyed when he turns down offers to get together on Saturdays. He still thinks it’s worth it. 

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"Sometimes the way forward is to stop and to rest and to do nothing," says Christie Aschwanden, a science journalist and author of a book about the inner workings of athletic recovery. So many of us are obsessed with turning every moment, even of our down time, into a multitasking display of productivity, she says. We track the exact number of steps and miles and reps we rack up with our fancy watches, fret over personal records and activity streaks. We’re missing the point.

Keyana Corliss learned that the best way to become faster as a runner, was to slow down. She’s applied this philosophy to life as well.

"It’s during the recovery process that you get fitter, faster, stronger," Ms. Aschwanden says. Lifting the barbell, hitting your 10th mile—those things leave microtears in your muscles, she explains. It’s afterward, when your body is at rest, that it repairs the damage and makes you better than before.

Earlier this year, as Keyana Corliss approached her sixth marathon, she began hunting for advice on how to get faster. She was disturbed to discover the answer seemed to be: run slower, by incorporating specific cool-down and recovery workouts into training. 

"I was, like, you’ve got to be kidding me," says Ms. Corliss, a 37-year-old Denver resident. She’d long prided herself on always going as hard as she could, considering skipped days a waste. Her new regimen felt painfully slow. 

And yet, the injuries that had long plagued her stopped. She ran her fastest time ever at the Chicago marathon and decided to apply the philosophy to her work life, leaving an intense job as the head of public relations for a tech company to spend a few months decompressing by skiing, reading and spending more time with her kids. She’ll start a less stressful role at a new firm early next year.

In some seasons of life, the idea of reaching rejuvenation can feel impossible.

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"Rest is like something I used to do," says Kevin Haven, who has a two-year-old, a three-year-old and a job in the insurance industry. Even as we were chatting, the 38-year-old was looking around his West Hartford, Conn., living room, mentally noting things he felt he should be tidying and tending to.

His time to decompress now comes at 4:30 a.m. He sets an early alarm so he can have an hour alone, downstairs, to enjoy his coffee and read self-help books before the chaos of the day descends.

The time is more energizing than sleep, he assures me. It’s peaceful, and quiet, and his.

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