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.