Photo by Zeny Rosalina on Unsplash

Why Rest Is Essential To High Performance


On The Tim Ferriss Show, LeBron James said he sleeps eight or nine hours each night. Sometimes ten. And if he can’t get those, he’ll catch up with a two-hour nap. James is a prominent fan of quality shut-eye, but not the only one.

According to ESPN, sprinter Usain Bolt and tennis stars Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova also shoot for an average sleeping time close to the double-digits. Point guard legend Steve Nash told The New York Times that naps on game day are a common occurrence among NBA players — and they help.

The message is that sleep isn’t just beneficial, but essential to top performance.

This is easy enough to understand for physically demanding activities, like sports, but when it comes to knowledge work and creative professions, we have a much harder time accepting the importance of sleep.

And yet, all of us know how tough it can be to host a long meeting or how hungry we are after hours of creativity. So what’s going on here?

An Unreasonably Hard Sell

Since collapsing from fatigue and breaking her cheekbone in 2007, Arianna Huffington has been hard at work to change the reputation of sleep. She started a sleep column, wrote multiple books on work-life balance, and launched Thrive Global, which advocates the prioritization of well-being.

In recent years, more and more sleep evangelists have joined her ranks and sleep health in the US has been improving, but, given how important it is, sleep still seems to be an unreasonably hard sell.

In 2018, only 27% of Americans reported getting the recommended 7–9 hours on weekdays and only 10% claimed to make sleep an actual priority. Hustle culture is still alive and kicking, with Elon Musk admitting it’s often “no sleep or Ambien” and up to 30% of Goldman Sachs workers feeling “utterly strung out” by their bank.

If sleep really is such a constituent of success, rather than an obstacle to it, then why is it so hard to get people excited about going to bed?

Well, for starters, no matter how good it is for our bodies, sleep feels like dead time. It’s not like running, during which you turn on a podcast and passively soak up ideas along the way. With sleep, you’re forced to single-task with no recollection of the time you put in — and that’s tough to swallow.

Another reason “sleep more” often falls on deaf ears is that it sounds tongue-in-cheek coming from already-successful people. Sure, it makes sense now, but is that really how you got here? We can’t tell, so we remain suspicious.

Finally, for those of us working in a “you can sleep when you’re dead” environment, peer pressure alone can keep us from standing up — or lying down, rather — for our eight hours of recuperation.

But those are just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem runs much deeper — and it starts with the standing of work in our modern culture.

Why We Won’t Stop Working

With the exception of Asian rice farmers, our hunter-gatherer ancestors “worked” about 3–5 hours per day. Today, we’d probably need even less to ensure our survival, yet we keep busting our backs. Working times have barely changed since the 1950s and, in fact, have increased in recent years.

According to researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, this has both cultural and technological causes. We invented machines to alleviate manual labor, but then ported the model we used to run them to jobs for creatives and thinkers.

The modern office was conceptualized as a machine for rationalizing and organizing intellectual labor, and it copied the working hours of factories. But the model has been an imperfect fit in creative industries, as it’s extremely hard to measure productivity and quality in creative and knowledge work.

Eight-hour shifts, an open and transparent physical environment, clocking times, these all make sense for producing units of a tangible product. But for year-long projects to develop innovative business strategies? Not so much. Yet, we still have the 40-hour workweek, open offices, and time tracking systems.

Meanwhile, status-driven spending, increased parenting stress, compulsive use of social media, and long commutes keep us busy outside of work too — despite our domestic lives being nearly fully automated thanks to washing machines, kitchen appliances, and smart home technology.

If the purpose of civilization is to indeed make us “more civilized,” then it seems we’ve got it backwards. We’re not trusting the good parts of technology enough to let it take care of the things it could really help us with, yet adopt the bad parts wholesale to stay entertained and occupied with banalities we shouldn’t even think about. As a result, we’re either busy using computers for the wrong tasks and mistrusting them with the right ones, or acting as if we are one in areas where that clearly doesn’t work, like thinking and creating.

So it’s not just the idea of working less to sleep more that we can’t stand — it’s working less for any reason at all that petrifies us. This deeply embedded cult of busy isn’t something you can combat with a long vacation and a few pills. It requires a huge shift in societal attitudes and awareness. But it starts with us.

Luckily, there is an idea that could spark this movement and slowly permeate our culture. It’s a little word that expands the concept of “sleep more,” but turns its negative connotations around and puts more power into our hands.

That word is ‘rest’ and it’s the title of Pang’s book. It’s also LeBron’s motto.

A Framing Of Downtime I Want To Embrace

Just as Tim asks LeBron about his sleep regimen, you can hear some rustling in the background. His trainer of 15 years, Mike Mancias, explains:

“Tim, by the way, that muffling you hear in the background is LeBron actually removing his ice bags. Like we just said, recovery never stops, right? Well, we’re sitting here doing this podcast in Los Angeles and LeBron is continuing to ice his knees and the rest of his body. Right now, in the middle of this podcast.”

Recovery never stops. That’s a sentence to remember. It’s more than sleep too:

“Recovery never stops. If LeBron plays 40 minutes one night, if he plays 28 minutes one night, we’re still going to keep recovery as our number one focus, whether that be in nutrition, whether that be in hydration, more flexibility exercises, stuff in the weight room. It’s a never-ending process, really. And I think that’s the approach that we must take in order for us to be successful.”

Looking at it from this angle, it becomes clear that a good sleep routine is just one part of a much bigger picture:

We must complement work with seemingly unrelated activities to even be able to deliver our best performance.

In this picture, recovery holds a much larger role than passive recuperation, even than active restoration: rest becomes a way of life.

This is the same argument Pang makes when he describes the problems with our modern attitude around work and calls for ‘a restful life:’

I’ve argued that we should treat work and rest as equals; that we should treat rest as a skill; that the best, most restorative kinds of rest are active; and that when practiced well, rest can make us more creative and productive, without forcing us into a funhouse mirror of endless work and ever-rising expectations. A life that takes rest seriously is not only a more creative life. When we take the right to rest, when we make rest fulfilling, and when we practice rest through our days and years, we also make our lives richer and more fulfilling.

That’s why taking breaks and having fun are as valuable to the creative and knowledge worker as sleep and nutrition are to the world-class athlete: rest isn’t just the well of physical recovery, it’s also the spring of insight.

Now that’s a framing of downtime I can’t wait to embrace. But how?

How To Live A Restful Life

The benefit of looking at rest as an activity, a skill, a habit to build, as opposed to seeing it as a mere necessity, is that, psychologically, you’ll feel more in charge. Instead of limiting ourselves to maintaining our health, we can now expand this practice to all areas of our life. Pang has several ideas as to how:

  • Get up early-ish. The hours before noon are when we are most alert, due to our circadian rhythm. This helps when trying to be creative.
  • Four hours of focused work are better than eight distracted ones. Studies have shown longer hours to provide ever-declining returns on productivity.
  • A long walk or even a nap around noon provides the right kind of non-work-related stimulation for your brain to have more good ideas later.
  • Quitting halfway through a task or artistic wave, as Hemingway famously did, gives your brain more starting points when you pick back up. Studies experimenting with task interruptions call this incubation effect.
  • Any form of regular exercise has a plethora of creative benefits, from better memory and thinking to more stable mental health. And that’s not even considering all the positive effects on your body.
  • Cultivating a strong hobby like painting, climbing, even video games, can give respite in tough times. It’s a form of healing. Pang calls it deep play.

Besides making you more productive, healthy, and creative, there’s a second, even more important aspect of integrating Pang’s concept of ‘deliberate rest’ into your life:

When you develop ‘rest’ as a mindset, an attitude you’re trying to hold, you’ll start treating work and leisure as two sides of one coin: living a good, happy, meaningful life.

Instead of seeing downtime as a forced retreat from the default of busy, you’ll start looking for pockets calm everywhere. Recovery never stops, remember?

Once you do, it turns out you can take a rest in lots of situations — and from lots of things. You can meditate on the subway or observe your fellow riders, rather than send emails or listen to a podcast on 1.5x speed. You can walk to your coworker’s desk instead of calling them or look out the window and let your mind wander. You can stop lamenting your nightly stomach cramps and patiently wait for them to pass. All of this is rest and it’s empowering.

That’s why it’s so important. Better health, high performance, extra creativity, these are all good but, ultimately, pale in comparison to living a balanced life.

All You Need To Know

World-class performers learn to value a good night’s sleep early in their careers. They have to. Pushing their body to its physical limits has a price.

As a creative or knowledge worker, you may not feel the consequences of doing your best so immediately and explicitly. Therefore, sleep and other means of recovery might appear like obstacles on your path to success.

In reality, our biggest roadblock is our inability to let go of this idea. Often, taking a step back, diverting our attention, and letting ideas sit are the fastest ways to the perspective we’ll need to move forward. When we cling to our work too desperately, we’ll miss the very moments we most desire from it.

Only if we embrace rest as one half of a balanced scale can we truly perform our best, think our best, live our best life. That requires active relaxation, for example by working fewer hours, taking more breaks, and cultivating a hobby purely for fun. But it also requires making rest a real habit — an attitude we carry within. To do that, we need to look for quiet moments, quiet thoughts, really, everywhere and all the time.

If we manage to find them, we’ll change what we see when we look back in our old age: not a life full of work, but one full of balance. It’s hard to say for sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say that’s what LeBron dreams about at night.