Be More Productive by Taking Breaks
A New York Times story reports on the positive impact school recess has on academic performance. Here’s how it begins: “The best way to improve children’s performance in the classroom may be to take them out of it.”
The paradoxical lesson of this story is relevant not just for schoolchildren but for us grown-ups, too: Taking time out to restore and rejuvenate ourselves results not in reduced performance caused by less time dedicated to work, but to increased performance caused by the stronger, more focused effort you bring to work after fruitful rest. But how can anyone think seriously, and without guilt, about undertaking activity that isn’t directly reducing costs or increasing revenues? The short answer is that you can’t afford not to.
A Coca-Cola Philosophy & Empty Calories
Studies reveal that 37 percent of Americans take fewer than seven days of vacation a year. In fact, only 14 percent take vacations that last longer than two weeks. Americans take the shortest paid vacations of anyone in the world. And 20 percent of those who do, often spend their vacation staying in touch with their jobs through their computers or phones.
The point? Even when we do vacation, we do it poorly. But even if we did vacation well and took great amounts of time off for restorative rest, vacations are a poor substitute for a weekly day of Sabbath rest. I think the devil loves taking that which is of God and giving us cheap knockoffs. When God invents sugar, the devil makes Sweet’N Low.
When God makes sex, the devil comes up with adultery. The devil always twists the goodness of God. The Bible is silent on vacations. Why? Because if we kept a weekly Sabbath, we would not need vacations. Vacations are what Jürgen Moltmann has called the “Coca – Cola philosophy” of Western life.
In the 1990s, Coca-Cola had a well-known campaign depicting people doing hard work, then popping open a cold bottle of Coke and taking a swig. We yearn for the “pause that refreshes. ” Unfortunately, we try to refresh ourselves with empty calories, or vacations, which are not what we really need. Our souls stir, longing for Sabbath. Not for the frills of a can of saccharine drink, a sugary vacation.
When my eldest son, Drew, was a toddler, bedtime was a battleground in our house. I think he felt cheated by the prospect of sleep. He hated the thought of going to bed while the rest of the world continued on. Instead of welcoming rest, Drew confronted it. He steeled himself against the prospect of sleep the way a wrestler braces himself to meet an opponent. “No night-night! No night-night!” he cried in indignation. To no avail. He was consigned to his crib by the superior force of parental authority.
One night my wife walked past his door and heard him muttering to himself. There was nothing left for him to do but mutter. “Stay awake! Stay awake!” he commanded himself. The prospect of sleep can be unnerving. While we sleep the world continues to be active. We are oblivious to our surroundings, supine and powerless. We are not in control during sleep but must depend on the mercy and protection of God. Our vulnerability is captured in the familiar children’s prayer: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Finding a Private Relaxation Activity
In his highly insightful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith shares the importance of finding ways to rest and relax as part of a healthy, balanced life:
I once read a book in which the author said everyone needed a private relaxation activity—something that was a “no-brainer.” For a friend of his, it was raking leaves in the driveway. For the author, it was ironing his shirts.
For my friend Brian, a CEO of a gas company, it is (believe it or not) washing dishes—much to the joy of his wife Nan and their kids! Brian told me that his daughter Brie sometimes says, “Dad, you look stressed so I am leaving my dishes in the sink for you to wash.” Isn’t that thoughtful?
The First Word Spoken to Adam & Eve
Imagine what Adam and Eve learned about God’s generosity from their first impression of him on their first day. Their first knowledge of God and the world God had made was that rest was not an afterthought — rest was of first importance….
Adam and Eve had accomplished nothing to earn this gratuitous day of rest. Sabbath is, in my estimation, the first image of the gospel in the biblical story. God’s nature always gives rest first; work comes later. This is reflected in all of our lives. Before our lives in this world began, we got nine months of rest in the womb.
Before taking up a vocation, we get a few years to just play as children. And before our six days of labor, we receive the day of rest. Karl Barth famously pointed out that the only thing Adam and Eve had to celebrate on that first Sabbath was God and his creation:
“That God rested on the seventh day , and blessed and sanctified it , is the first divine action which man is privileged to witness ; and that he himself may keep the Sabbath with God, completely free from work, is the first Word spoken to him, the first obligation laid on him.”
I’ll Sleep in Heaven
The need for rest is greatly misunderstood by so many Christians in today’s world. I cannot count how many times I have heard a well – intended Christian leader say, “I’ll sleep when I get to heaven.” What a lamentably nonbiblical cliché. In the end, we will get to heaven much quicker if we opt not to rest. Sabbath rest is no sign of weakness or sinfulness—God himself rested. Is God weak?
The Lesson of Genesis
The lesson of Genesis is that the first work of rest is to cease from our own effort. All that needs to be done has already been done. The work of God was finished long before we ever came on the scene. The first move for those who hope to work at rest is to recognize its passive nature. Rest is something we receive. Those who enter into God’s rest recognize that rest is something God grants to us. It is grounded on work only God can do. Rest begins with God; it does not begin with us.
Let Him Rest
The following story comes from the collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt, teaching that would have first been transmitted orally (around 350-450 A.D.) and later written down for the spiritual nourishment of generations to come (much like the Old and New Testaments). The material is rich and profound and can be applied to a modern audience, as the following encounter demonstrates:
Some old men came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, “We see some of the brothers falling asleep during divine worship. Should we wake them up?” He said, “As for me, when I see a brother who is falling asleep during the Office, I lay his head on my knees and let him rest.
In her book Invitation to Retreat, Ruth Haley Barton shares some of the many insights she has had since she began intentionally taking inattentional retreats to re-connect with God and her own desires. In this passage she contrasts the idea of “retreat” vs. “stragetic withdrawal”
When we hear the word retreat many of us think of the military use of the word, which refers to the tactic troops use when they are losing too much ground, when they are tired and ineffective, and when there have been too many casualties or the current strategy is not working.
When any of these scenarios are in play, the commander might instruct the troops to pull back and put some distance between themselves and the battle line. We often see this as a negative thing; however, military retreat can also be a wise tactic—an opportunity to rest the troops and tend to their wounds, to stop the enemy’s momentum, or to step back to get a panoramic view of what’s going and set new strategies.
In fact, the military is now using a more positive term—strategic withdrawal—to describe retreat, and I like it! Strategic withdrawal captures the more positive connotations of the word retreat, namely, that there are times when the better part of wisdom in combat is to withdraw for good reasons—which can apply to us as well.
Taken from Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton Copyright (c) 2018 by Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Struggling to Rest
Rest has never been one of America’s greatest strengths. According to one study, only one in seven adults (14%) have set aside an entire day for the purpose of rest. For those who do set aside an entire day, can you guess how they fill their time? Mostly with work. Over 40% say they do enjoyable work, and an additional 37% say they will do non-enjoyable work, if it has to get done (Raking leaves anyone?). Out of the 14% who set aside a day of rest, only 19% say they will won’t work at all on their day of rest.
Stuart R Strachan Jr.
True rest seems elusive for most Americans. Only one in seven adults (14%) set aside a day a week for rest. And on that one day a week, what do they do? Mostly, they work. More than four in ten say they do enjoyable work, and an additional nearly four in ten (37%) say they’ll do non-enjoyable work if it needs to be done. Only one in five (19%) say they don’t do any work at all on their day of rest.
The Value of Rest
Today many of us have been [so] conditioned by efficiency that times [of sitting on the porch] feel unproductive, irresponsible, lazy, even selfish. We know we need rest, but we can no longer see the value of rest as an end in itself; it is only worthwhile if it helps us recharge our batteries so we can be even more efficient in the next period of productivity.
Waiting For Their Souls To Catch Up With Their Bodies
The story goes like this: It’s the height of British colonialism. An English traveler lands in Africa, intent on a rapid journey into the jungle. He charters some local porters to carry his supplies. After an exhausting day of travel, all on foot, and a fitful night’s sleep, he gets up to continue the journey. But the porters refuse. Exasperated, he begins to cajole, bribe, plead, but nothing works. They will not move an inch. Naturally, he asks why.
Answer? They are waiting “for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”
Lettie Cowman, in her telling of this story, wrote,
This whirling rushing life which so many of us live does for us what that first march did for those poor jungle tribesmen. The difference: they knew what they needed to restore life’s balance; too often we do not.[i]
Adapted from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Copyright © 2019 by John Mark Comer. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
[i] As far as I can tell, this story was first told in Lettie Cowman’s book Springs in the Valley (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1968), 207. But it’s best known from John O’Donohue, Anam Cara (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 151. His quote is “We have moved too quickly to reach here; now we need to wait to give our spirits a chance to catch up with us.” Honestly, I’m not sure of the accuracy of this story. But fiction or non, there’s truth in it.
What We Love to Do & How We Love to Be
In his highly insighful work, Inside Job, Stephen W. Smith shares insights on the topic of rest from the poet David Whyte:
[The] poet David Whyte opens our minds and hearts to rest when he writes: Rest is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be. Rest is the essence of giving and receiving. Rest is an act of remembering, imaginatively and intellectually but also physiologically and physically.
To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals. To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we put it right; to rest is to fall back literally or figuratively from outer targets and shift the goal not to an inner bulls eye, an imagined state of perfect stillness, but to an inner state of natural exchange.
Without a Gauge
In his book, I’d Like You More if You were More Like Me, pastor John Ortberg describes one of the unfortunate realities of the Model T made by Ford. The Car existed without a gauge, so drivers never knew if and when they were going to run out of gas. This short story can be used in a number of ways, but I think it relates well to our own need for some sort of “gauge” of our health. How do we know when we are running on empty and in need of a refill?
In the early days of the Model T, Henry Ford decided to cut costs by not supplying a gas gauge. As a result, motorists were constantly getting stuck by the side of the road. Some people actually painted lines on a stick that they could dip into the tank to find out how much fuel they had left. Even today you can find Model T owners forums online with endless discussions about fuel-measuring sticks.
You are a Very Boring Man
A number of years ago, I had the privilege of sitting at lunch with a good friend who looked directly at me in the midst of our conversation and uttered these words: “You concern me because you’re a very boring man.” How was I supposed to respond to something like that? “Uh, pass the salt. I’ll try to spice up my life for you.” What I actually said was, “What are you saying?” “You work too much,” he said.
When I pressed him about his concern, he responded, “You have no hobbies. You take no breaks. You have no Sabbath. You don’t take time off.” “Well, what do you suggest?” “I want to take you fishing.” Say, what? To me, fishing meant holding a pole with a line going into the water. That line has a little red and white bulb attached that sits on the top, while the rest of it hangs below with a hook that has something dead on the end of it. And you hold onto that, being as still and quiet as possible, while you wait for something to happen.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Rest. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!