Am I resting right?

How rest became exhausting

After starting off the year at a sprint, last week I finally ran out of steam. So excited about the new year and the new decade, I’d piled my plate high. Despite being fully aware that the proclamation of “new year, new me” is a recipe for disappointment, I’d fooled myself into thinking that I wasn’t making resolutions, I was just shifting my priorities.  

I took on too many commitments and soon found myself exhausted and in need of a pause. I knew I needed to pull my foot off the gas, but when it came to resting I just couldn’t get it right. It’s not that I couldn’t stop, it’s that I felt I wasn’t stopping in the ‘right’ way. In trying to rest, I somehow find myself even more tired. 

To start with, I felt guilty that I needed more downtime than I usually do. I tried to fight against the fact I needed an extra hour’s sleep each night and that I wasn’t as alert as I usually am in the mornings. What I realise now is that my body had been slowing down during winter, trying to tell me to ease back a bit during the colder months. But I got swept up in the new year rush and tried to ignore those signals.

When I did finally succumb to rest, I felt guilty about how I was doing it. I’d get lost in a chick-lit novel but feel like I should be reading a collection of feminist essays. I couldn’t help binging on Friends, but felt like I should be watching a documentary instead. Even when it came to dinner, all I wanted was to stir-fry noodles but a voice in the back of my head was telling me I should be home-brewing bone broth and baking sourdough. 

There’s some comfort knowing that I’m not the only one feeling the pressure to optimise my leisure time. In a piece for the New Statesman, Sarah Manavis wrote about the rise of scheduling free time. She questioned whether making diary appointments for our downtime was a good thing or if, in fact, it just becomes another cause for stress. As she writes, “when our free time becomes a commodity—one that can be ‘done right, moved, or cancelled’—it’s hard to see how the practice really makes us free.” 

I feel this acutely as a freelancer. In theory, I should be able to bake rest time into my schedule more easily. There’s no reason I can’t work with my natural energy rather than against it. And while I do usually manage to achieve this, there are times like the past couple of weeks when I don’t. All I’m really saying here is that while I’ve found a way to work that suits me, I do sometimes slip up. But because I put so much pressure on the sanctity of my schedule, when I can’t keep to it, I feel like I’ve failed.  

The problem then becomes amplified when I start scrolling. As Derek Thompson writes in his essay about workism in the Atlantic, social media is where today’s workers turn to make manifest their accomplishments. “The trauma of the Millennial generation has been the disturbance of social media, which has amplified the pressure to craft an image of success—for oneself, for one’s friends and colleagues, and even for one’s parents,” he writes. I see this play out on my Instagram Stories and Twitter timeline which are filled with announcements prefaced with “some personal news!” 

I think a lot about the context of where, in a physical sense, I am when I receive these career milestone updates. I’m sprawled out on my sofa; I’m waiting for a bus on my way to the pub; I’m in bed. In my times of rest, it’s not only my own work I can’t escape but also the reminders of everyone else’s. 

Intellectually, I’m fully aware of how flawed and damaging the modern work narrative is – so much so that I’ve made an entire podcast about it. However, even the most intrinsically motivated among us find it hard not to cave to comparison or to internalise self-doubt.  

I know that the answer to all of these woes is to put up better boundaries; to chase intrinsic motivation; to write my own definition of success, and of course, to just rest. I know all this. And yet, every now and then, rest still exhausts me. Now, please excuse me while I go and take a guilt-ridden nap.