Take a Break—For Renewal

“Think for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?”

So begins a recent New York Times article entitled “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive,” in which Tony Schwartz argued that people would be able to produce more—and be happier—if they spent less time actually working. Research shows, he says, that the ideal would be to spend no more than 90 minutes at a time in continuous work, with only about four and a half total hours spent working each day. The rest of the time would be spent allowing our minds and bodies to rest and be restored.

“The importance of restoration is rooted in our physiology. Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy,” says Schwartz. Just as we cycle between shallower and deeper sleep during a period of rest, researchers have found that people move from alertness to fatigue throughout the day. It really isn’t complicated, Schwartz claims: “Our secret is simple — and generally applicable. When we’re renewing, we’re truly renewing, so when we’re working, we can really work.”

But it’s really not as easy as Schwartz makes it out to be. We all have many demands on our time, so many things to do. In yesterday’s article for the Opinionator’s “Anxiety” series, Ruth Whippman wrote, “I can spend a week at home with my son, feeling guilty that I am neglecting work and haven’t written a single word, that I am letting down my editors and myself and failing to make use of the education my parents worked so hard to provide. Yet now as I type, the guilt bubbles up for the fact that my son is languishing in day care, while I am busy not appreciating the minute-by-minute wonderama that is his precious early childhood.”

Whippman is, perhaps, one of those women trying to “have it all,” but even those without children can sympathize with being torn between productivity (work, classwork, volunteer work, self-improvement) and relationships (with a spouse or significant other, friends, parents, siblings). And of course, Schwartz’s opening paragraph rings true for many of us, as well—especially those of use who work for companies (or professors) less enlightened than Schwartz’s.

Still, neither Whippman’s words about the unproductive guilt about things not done, nor Schwartz’s caution that exhaustion will decrease our productivity, should fall on deaf ears. Pausing for reflection and renewal (and prayer) is a constant throughout Christian history, beginning with God’s rest after the creation of the world. Jesus repeatedly withdrew from his followers during his three year ministry in order to be alone and to pray. More than simply shrugging off guilt or “taking ‘me’ time,” our time of renewal should be based in the knowledge that we’re ultimately not in control of our lives, careers, or relationships, no matter how much we worry or how long we work. Mental and physical renewal are important, but spiritual renewal can be found even in the midst of the storm.

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