The importance of rest: Why studying for long periods of time is counterproductive

Do you have a tendency to push yourself? Do you burn the midnight oil?

If so, the way you’re working isn’t working.

Sure, I know how it is. When you work until late at night (when others are sleeping), you feel like you’re being super productive. It feels like you’re getting lots done. You think you’ve got one up on the rest of the world.

But in actual fact, you’re less productive.

Think of top performing athletes. They don’t train at an intense level 24/7 for a reason. They have rest days where they simply stretch, do strength training or go for a massage.

Without rest periods, athletes run the risk of injuring themselves and burning out before the big event.

Similarly, if you study for hours on end with no breaks, what’s likely to happen?

You increase the odds of getting sick, draining yourself mentally and/or burning out.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says in his book Rest – Why You Get More Done When You Work less:

“If you want to succeed, you need to avoid exhaustion.”

Learning from my mistakes

For many years I was one exhausted student.

When I was at university, there were days when my friends and I would work until late at night on our assignments. We’d work in the computer labs until midnight, only stopping briefly to get sugary snacks from the vending machine to keep us going.

At the time we thought working until late at night was a great idea (“Let’s smash this out!”) but looking back, this was an inefficient and unhealthy approach. Why?

Because the next day was always a write-off. We would feel exhausted. Our brains weren’t up to the job of wrestling with complex ideas.

As Cambridge mathematician John Littlewood states:

“It is too easy, when rather tired, to fritter away a whole day with the intention of working but never getting properly down to it. This is pure waste, nothing is done, and you have had no rest or relaxation.”

So squeezing in an extra 4-5 hours of low quality, unfocused work in the evenings would nearly always cost my friends and I an entire day. In Littlewood’s words, our day would be “frittered away”.

But at some point, the penny finally dropped.

Here’s the lesson I learnt …

As a student, you are always better off to knock off earlier in the day, get some rest and relaxation so you can feel mentally sharp and refreshed for the next day.

I also learnt that when you rest, you can work better. Everything feels a lot easier with a refreshed mind and body.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang states:

“Rest is not work’s adversary. Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other.”

So how can you rest better?

Contrary to popular belief, rest isn’t a passive activity.

It’s not about lying on the couch and watching TV. Rest can be a timed power nap, a walk around the block, a vigorous cardio session at the gym or a game of cards with a friend.

It may sound strange but rest is something you need to work hard at. It’s something you need to make time for. And it’s a skill you can get better at. It just takes practice.

To sum up

The school year isn’t a sprint. Approach it more like a marathon. You don’t want to burn out in the first 100 metres. So you need to pace yourself. You need to practice deliberate rest.

So the question is how will you practice deliberate rest today? What activities will you engage in to recharge your batteries? Feel free to post a comment below.