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Waking up to the power of rest
After a two-week hiatus, what have we learned about rest at BSR?
In the first half of August, the BSR team took a two-week hiatus. A pandemic and a social-justice movement exacerbate the fact that I haven’t taken a break since December 2018. That number swells for other staffers, too, including EIC Alaina Johns, who hadn’t caught a spell in years. The time I had off, though, wasn’t really time off. I still had other projects to tackle. I’m a full-time freelancer. I’m never not needed for something.
Despite that, my load was significantly lighter. Many days, I was done with work in the early afternoon. Some days I slept in until the early afternoon and decided put off everything until the next day. I indulged in long baths and generous pours of wine and whiskey, spent dozens of hours catching up on my Nintendo Switch backlog, dived into leisure reading for the first time this year with The Wicked and the Divine, and finally watched the final season of Sailor Moon in its entirety. Sometimes, I just lay in bed and enjoyed the sound of nothing for long periods of time.
It was tough, honestly.
Rest is complicated, and insomnia struck me hard this month. August historically does not treat me well, and my emotional health is alarmingly unstable. And when I woke up to the news of Jacob Blake, another Black person shot in broad daylight by Wisconsin police, right in front of his children, I was battered before I could start the day. Even if I had the chance to rest, who can sleep in these times? Who can sleep when none of this is new and it keeps happening?
I spent time trying to figure out my health insurance, and am not excited about the dozens of futile hours I will spend trying to find therapy. I was racked with guilt over the number of libations I imbibed, shaming myself over what was bringing me a little joy. I fell behind in my other work and even though I knew I had plenty of time to get it all done, I found ways to scold myself about it. I grew anxious thinking about what freelance work would keep me afloat for the fall. My heart constantly aches for my Black siblings.
During my time for rest, I tired myself out. What do you do when you notice bad patterns? You take a look at history.
Centuries of clocking in
In 1940, the 40-hour work week became US law. For at least 80 years, we’ve been accustomed to this structure. But during the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, workers were filling in more than 80 hours per week (I’m not even getting into slavery here). By the end of the 1800s, that average ballooned to 100 hours a week for manufacturing employees. The push for the 40-hour work week began, but it wasn’t until 1926 that Henry Ford made the idea popular through research: his employees were just as productive with shorter work weeks.
Take that with a grain of salt. With people working less, that means they have more time to consume, and expectations on productivity increased. The advent of the 40-hour work week was another means to advocate for capitalism, not for work-life balance.
New wave work week
Fast-forward to August 2019, when Microsoft tested a four-day work week in its Japan offices. According to The Guardian, Microsoft’s Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer project gave its “2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row without decreasing pay,” which, the article continues, “led to more efficient meetings, happier workers, and boosted productivity by a staggering 40 percent.” The story cites other companies who tried similar experiments with similar success.
Measuring work by hours is counterintuitive in many professional practices. Think about it: the more you do something, the easier it gets and the more efficient you become at performing your work. The better you get, the fewer hours you need to complete tasks. What might’ve taken you 40 hours in the beginning now takes only 20. Does getting better at your job mean you should take a 50 percent pay cut?
This scaling wasn’t considered when the 40-hour work week became professional doctrine.
The way technology has advanced since the 40-hour work week is reason enough to consider why this structure is antiquated. Communication and information move faster. We have more means of presenting it and executing on it. We’ve all gotten better at our jobs simply by virtue of having done it collectively for hundreds of years.
Why haven’t we adapted? How did we allow grind culture to be integrated and glorified? The answer might be shame culture. We’re ashamed to rest, which feels an awful lot like how people shame others for their political and cultural beliefs—or, worse, how we shame ourselves for wanting what we want.
Get your nap on
Tricia Hersey is the founder of the Nap Ministry, an organization that “examines the liberating power of naps” with workshops, performance art, and community organizing. The Nap Ministry Instagram is lit, too, and the feed is a deep breath of dreamy, sleepy air.
“We believe rest is a form of resistance and name sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue,” the Nap Ministry proclaims.
In a podcast with The Atlantic, Hersey urged listeners to “take it easy on yourself.... [This] is a slow deprogramming.” Working with human-rights activists in America, she encourages them to “understand rest as a spiritual practice. Rest is productive. When you are resting, you are being productive … you’re honoring your body. You are giving your brain a moment to download new information. You’re disrupting toxic systems by reclaiming rest.”
I attribute my tenacious work ethic to my grandmother, who was always up and about by 4:30am and didn’t stop until late in the afternoon. While she was adamant about her work, she only did what she wanted to do, how she wanted to do it, and was strict about napping in the middle of the day, finishing dinner by 5pm, and was restful all weekend. Yeah, she got up early, and at first glance, worked 12-hour days, but they were mitigated by long periods of rest.
As much as I wanted to adopt her work ethic, I missed the part about her rest ethic.
One of the things she left us with? Hand-sewn quilts. Her work had purpose, direction, and left a legacy predicated on rest. I can’t tell you how many hours she spent sewing, nor can I tell you how many nights (or afternoons) I slept with her blankets, but I can tell you that her work had a balance that permeates my life even after she’s gone.
Rest and work are equally important practices, and it’s time to consider deeply our relationship to both.
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