The Art of Rest

Rest Stop sign

You’re burning calories, but are you performing?

I’ve had the privilege of befriending a number of impressive athletes. It’s true that when you’re struggling to keep pace on a bike ride or long run, they all look quite similar: they grow increasingly small in front of you, and then they vanish altogether, leaving you alone and muttering breathlessly.

But athletes aren’t all the same. It undoubtedly oversimplifies their diversity, but I separate them into two groups: metabolizers and performers. And I think there’s a direct parallel in the day-to-day lives of many business people. There are those of us who believe metabolizing (work) and performance (results) are directly related, and there are those of us who know it’s more complicated than that.

A key difference between metabolizers and performers, and between those who work and those who produce results, is the Art of Rest.

The athletes I’ve known who consistently beat their competition, or consistently place among the elite, are masters of rest. The common misconception is that rest equals lethargy. Sometimes it might–everyone needs ice cream and TV once in a while–but more precisely it is a systematic disengagement of the muscles that will be relied upon for actual performance. This is different than lying around the house feeling useless.

Metabolizers–those I’ve known who consistently rack up more miles and more reps than anyone else… every single day–seem threatened by rest, as if it is their mortal enemy. As if it does, in fact, mean to lie around the house feeling useless. It’s easy to be impressed by these individuals and to buy into the relentlessness of their philosophy: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” They’re leaner than you, their heart rate is lower, and they’re training when you’re thinking about it. There’s only one problem, though: when it’s time to really perform against others or against the clock, the metabolizers don’t win–the performers do. Ask any professional trainer or coach. Top performers train remarkably hard, but being smart enough to rest at the right time is what puts them on the podium, leaving the metabolizers to wonder why all their work hasn’t translated into results.

As a business person–whether you’re in a high pressure startup, or managing a non-profit project in another country–the “muscle” you rely upon for performance requires rest. Your brain, that is. It needs a break now and then in order to produce exemplary results. We all know this. You can wrestle all week with a business problem until you’re seeing double and breaking coffee consumption records. Then, out of physical necessity if nothing else, you go take the dog for a walk or play some tennis or listen to a program on NPR … and BOOM, the solution presents itself while your brain is resting. It’s a magical and wonderful phenomenon.

I may be typical as a business person in that I’ve experienced this magical, wonderful thing many times, and I’ve forgotten it just as many. I value rest intellectually, but my day-to-day behavior belies what my gut is telling me, and that is that rest is my mortal enemy. I must metabolize, I must keep working, because the deadline looms, the stakes are high, the people depending on me are many, and it’s no time for lying around the office. I default to thinking there is a direct relationship between the relentlessness of my work and the results I produce.

And that’s where I’m wrong time and time again. It’s more complicated than that.

Top performing athletes might tell me it reminds them of “metabolizers”–pretty impressive in a Tuesday training session, but not too good in a Saturday race, because results rely on the Art of Rest.



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