Resting: The new productivity

In the shadow of work is rest. While we were created to work, we were also created to rest. The problem is that American culture isn’t very good at it. That’s because, as The Atlantic pointed out a few years ago, being busy is a status symbol.

A long time ago, however, it was the other way around. People used to think that leisure was a status symbol. If you didn’t have to work, the thinking went, you must have been rich. In Greek and Roman culture, this was the way of the gods. Ancient cultures “looked back to the Golden Age, when nature was bountiful and human beings lived in a life of ease free from toil.”1

It seems as though modern culture has flipped that on its head. In China, especially at behemoths like Alibaba, they have a work schedule called 996: Work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for 6 days a week. That’s a brutal schedule by anyone’s imagination.

But don’t we work that much? If we’re not “at work,” we go home and do chores or homework or raise children until 9 p.m. Even Netflix isn’t all that restful. We fill our weekends with social activities or errands or whatever else, brandishing Instagram feeds with #hustle, probably “working” in some form or another 7 days a week. When you get back from vacation, people ask you that tired, banal question, “Did you rest or do you have to take a vacation from your vacation?”

You might think that in order to make it in the world, you need to hustle, but one interesting study from the Harvard Business Review traced in detail the time commitments of the most successful CEOs.

They found that even the best rest.

Given that work could consume every hour of their lives, CEOs have to set limits so that they can preserve their health and their relationships with family and friends. Most of the CEOs in our study recognized that. They slept, on average, 6.9 hours a night, and many had regular exercise regimens, which consumed about 9% of their nonwork hours (or about 45 minutes a day). To sustain the intensity of the job, CEOs need to train — just as elite athletes do. That means allocating time for health, fitness, and rest.

We paid special attention to the 25% of time — or roughly six hours a day — when CEOs were awake and not working. Typically, they spent about half those hours with their families, and most had learned to become very disciplined about this. Most also found at least some hours (2.1 a day, on average) for downtime, which included everything from watching television and reading for pleasure, to hobbies like photography.

In chart form, their average schedules look like this.

Look how much downtime is in their schedule.

Do you remember the last time you simply did nothing at all? This week, take some time to do just that — and relax. The world will keep spinning without you.

1 Keith Thomas, ed., The Oxford Book of Work (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), 3.