Rest Days vs Recovery Days

Based on a com­ment I made on this EA Fo­rum Post on Burnout.

Re­lated links: Sab­bath hard and go home, Bring Back the Sabbath

That com­ment I made gen­er­ated more pos­i­tive feed­back than usual (in that peo­ple seemed to find it helpful to read and found them­selves think­ing about it months af­ter read­ing it), so I’m ele­vat­ing it to a LW post of its own. Con­sider this an up­date to the origi­nal com­ment.

Like Ben Hoff­man, I stum­bled upon and re­dis­cov­ered the Sab­bath (al­though my im­ple­men­ta­tion seems differ­ent from both Ben and Zvi). I was ex­pe­rienc­ing burnout at CFAR, and while I wasn’t able to es­cape the effects en­tirely, I found some re­fuge in the fol­low­ing dis­tinc­tion be­tween Rest Days and Re­cov­ery Days.

Re­cov­ery Days

A Re­cov­ery Day is where you’re so tired or un­der-re­sourced that you can’t do much of any­thing with your­self other than: stay in bed /​ sleep a lot, binge on Net­flix or video games, stay in your room all day, play with your phone, use so­cial me­dia, and feel un­mo­ti­vated to do much ex­cept easy, stim­u­lat­ing, and/​or mind-numb­ing things. This is a Re­cov­ery Day and does not count as a Rest Day, but it is fine to take the time for them. How­ever you aren’t go­ing to be re­freshed from them. In or­der to re­ally re­fresh, you need to take an­other day that counts as a Rest Day.

Another way a per­son might take time off is to do things that are like work but eas­ier. Video games are a prime ex­am­ple. I play a lot of video games that in­volve op­ti­miz­ing sys­tems, and I find these re­ally mo­ti­vat­ing and fun. But I no­tice that this is a kind of “work”—my mind is try­ing to solve prob­lems and im­ple­ment solu­tions. The differ­ence is that be­cause it’s easy and doable, I get ad­dicted to them, and it’s a way for me to es­cape the “real” prob­lems at work, which tend to be harder to solve. This also doesn’t count as Rest­ing.

Rest Days

Rest Days are days where I have enough en­ergy and re­sources that I feel mo­ti­vated and able to get out and about. (One way I can tell I have en­ergy is that some­times I spon­ta­neously feel like cook­ing, a rare oc­cur­rence.) On a Rest Day, your prime di­rec­tive is to just “fol­low your gut” for the en­tire day and just do “what you feel like do­ing” in the mo­ment.

There can be no obli­ga­tions on a Rest Day. No sched­uled calls or meet­ings. No promises to show up to a party. You can go to the party if you ac­tu­ally feel like go­ing to the party, but you won’t be able to know un­til last-minute. You can­not be “on-call” for any­thing. No one should de­pend on you un­less it’s some­one you ac­tively like be­ing de­pended on for things, like a per­son you care about.

There can be ex­cep­tions to these, but I like to make Rest Days “sa­cred”—aka pro­tected from in­fluences like work pres­sure, so­cial pres­sure, pres­sure from so­ciety, in­cen­tive gra­di­ents cre­ated by video games and my phone, in­cen­tive gra­di­ents cre­ated by money, the pres­sure to be differ­ent or bet­ter, the pres­sure to achieve, the pres­sure to always be go­ing some­where else, the pres­sure to “always be clos­ing.”

Rest Days are for be­ing in the Now. The Now needs to be pro­tected from in­fluences from both the past (obli­ga­tions) and the fu­ture (anx­ieties).

Rest Days will ac­tu­ally re­fresh and re­set you. Un­for­tu­nately, many peo­ple do not know how to take Rest Days. They in­stead use week­ends and va­ca­tion days as Re­cov­ery Days or days where their mind is still in “work­ing” mode. But Re­cov­ery Days alone are not suffi­cient for re­fresh­ing your en­ergy lev­els and mo­ti­va­tion. You risk burnout if you con­sis­tently fail to get any true Rest over a long pe­riod of time.

Things my gut wants to do on Rest Days:

  • be in the pre­sent mo­ment

  • med­i­tate (in a nat­u­ral, spon­ta­neous way)

  • eat tasty things

  • have a pic­nic in a park /​ take walks /​ en­joy nature

  • chill at a cafe I like

  • go to a mu­seum or an aquar­ium

  • draw, dance, sing, im­pro­vise poems

  • read a book, listen to music

  • cook

  • spend mean­ingful so­cial time with friends or family

  • use­ful, en­gag­ing er­rands or home-im­prove­ment stuff (not be­cause I have to, be­cause I want to)

Things my gut rarely wants to do on Rest Days:

  • spend a lot of time on Face­book or so­cial media

  • binge TV

  • play video games

  • be in front of a screen in general

  • do my job /​ work stuff

  • lie in bed for hours

  • eat microwaved food or junk food

  • go to so­cial func­tions, net­work­ing events, or any so­cial event where I feel like I “should” go but don’t re­ally feel like going

  • do any­thing with an ad­dic­tive quality

Bot­tom-Up Implementation

My im­ple­men­ta­tion of Rest Days /​ Sab­baths is very bot­tom-up. I pay at­ten­tion to the sen­sa­tions and sig­nals from my stom­ach and use them as my guide for what to do and what not to do. It’s ba­si­cally us­ing Fo­cus­ing to play a game of warmer-colder on var­i­ous ac­tions I could take.

E.g.: I use this method all the time for de­cid­ing what to eat. I go through a list of pos­si­ble foods I could eat, and I check each one by plac­ing the image or felt sense of the food “next to” my stom­ach. The re­sponses are usu­ally like, “nah” or “not quite but closer” or “yes that.” And if I check them against my mouth in­stead, the an­swers are some­times differ­ent. My stom­ach tends to want “real food” (filling, satis­fy­ing, va­ri­ety of nu­tri­ents) whereas my mouth will wants things based on their fla­vor (sweet, spicy, fa­mil­iar, etc.).

I use the same method to de­cide what I want to do: go to the park? do some sketch­ing? hang out with friends?

This kind of de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cess doesn’t work as well for com­pli­cated things. I’m not go­ing to try to buy a house this way. Or plan a party. Or do any work. But it’s a great way to know how to spend a Rest Day.

Top-Down Implementation

Another to­tally valid way to im­ple­ment Rest Days is a top-down method, where you pre-de­ter­mine some rules and guidelines for your­self.

Zvi has a set of sim­ple rules he out­lined in his post:

Start here. Ad­just as needed.

Light can­dles be­fore sun­down Fri­day to be­gin.

No out­side in­puts ex­cept in per­son.

No choices im­pact­ing post-Sab­bath.

Light and ex­tin­guish no fires. Do no work or busi­ness. Spend no money.

Only pre­s­e­lected and spon­ta­neously mo­ti­vated ac­tions are al­lowed. No brows­ing. No lists.

Light an­other can­dle af­ter sun­down Satur­day to end.

Some other pick-and-choose op­tions for rules that I think would work for many peo­ple:

  • No so­cial me­dia, email, news, or mind­less phone games

  • No obli­ga­tions or prior com­mit­ments (only op­tional ac­tivi­ties)

  • No driving

  • No on­line shop­ping /​ no buy­ing any­thing that costs more than $50 un­less it’s a spon­ta­neous gift for some­one else

  • (If EA) Try to make this day one where you per­mit your­self to seek out warm fuzzies and set aside ques­tions of util­ity /​ do­ing the most good

  • No plan­ning for the fu­ture

  • Give your­self “Get Out of Jail Free” cards for things like so­cial obli­ga­tions, com­mu­nity drama/​is­sues, work-re­lated problems

Fair warn­ing #1: If you go over­board on the rules, you may never dis­cover what truly rest­ing is like for you, as I be­lieve it is differ­ent for each per­son AND I don’t think you can know what rest­ing is for you with­out check­ing in that ex­act mo­ment in time. Rest­ing is about NOW. Try­ing to “get your fu­ture self to rest” by out­lin­ing a bunch of rules may cause you to miss some im­por­tant things about what you’re re­ally want­ing in the mo­ment.

True Rest is one where, in the mo­ment, you do what you want to do and don’t do what you don’t want to do. That’s it.

Fair warn­ing #2: If you give your­self too much room to ma­neu­ver, you may end up slip­ping back into old habits and just treat­ing Rest Days like any other day. Maybe you say to your­self, well I re­ally ac­tu­ally feel like do­ing this work right now. So you do some work. And then the next time, it hap­pens again. And again. Un­til it spirals into be­com­ing nor­mal to work on Rest Days—to pick up work calls, to sched­ule meet­ings, to check email, etc.

Rest Days de­serve sa­cred lev­els of pro­tec­tion. Other­wise you will just lose them.

I don’t ex­pect any­one to be able to have perfect Rest Days.

I still check email and Face­book on my Rest Days, just less of­ten. If a work emer­gency came up, I’d prob­a­bly get pul­led in.


But I think it makes a sig­nifi­cant differ­ence even just to a) hold it as your in­ten­tion to Rest for the day and b) let oth­ers know that this is im­por­tant to you and that they would be im­p­ing­ing by mak­ing re­quests of you on a Rest Day. This is your time. You are al­lowed to set bound­aries on your time, your at­ten­tion, and your en­ergy.

Even if you can’t pull it off ev­ery week, it seems good to at least try for once a month. Twelve days out of the year are for you. And hope­fully it’s closer to fifty.

The Sab­bath was triv­ial to en­force when ev­ery­one was do­ing it. We’ve more or less lost that as a shared norm. As such, you will be fight­ing an up­stream bat­tle to hold onto your sa­cred Rest Days. This is un­for­tu­nate.

But it is worth it.

In my cul­ture, you are al­lowed to stand up for your abil­ity to Rest. To say “Fuck you” to out­side forces try­ing to take that away from you. To get an­gry, to dig your heels in, to be stub­born, to get in­dig­nant. To say no. You are al­lowed to pro­tect the sa­cred­ness of your Rest Day.

So­ciety has mostly given up on sa­cred Rest Days. The least I can do is make it openly per­mis­si­ble and defen­si­ble for you to pro­tect your abil­ity to have Rest Days. I hope we can do the same for each other.