Learning to Rest

Learning to Rest

Learning to Rest 1280 384 Larry Liu

This post written previously for our Medium platform by Larry Liu, co-founder and coach at The Spike Lab. We are sharing it here to encourage our families and students to purposefully rest over the winter holidays of 2020.

Two years ago…

It was the winter holiday season and our team was taking a much-deserved break before we dove into the new year. During this time of rest, I noticed something odd about the way I rest. That is, I often find that my days off are not actually very restful. Sometimes I play a marathon session of video games, or cook up a fancy 7-course meal, or work out at the gym until I’m just a puddle of sweat, or going out with friends and hanging out until the odd hours of the night. In the end, I am usually just as tired as when I first began (and sometimes even more so).

I think this comes from the aggressive, ever running, ever maximizing part of my brain that is always trying to make the most of a situation. This killer instinct serves me well in most situations but has been gradually creeping over into my rest as well. Consequently, I’ve lost the ability to do nothing. I’m not okay with silence or stillness. Even when I’m relaxing, I often feel anxious that I’m not relaxing ENOUGH or wondering if my relaxation could potentially serve a productive purpose like reading one of the many books on my ever-expanding reading list.

This quickly becomes a Catch 22 where the object of my relaxation is invariably what prevents me from actually being able to relax in the first place. This realization set me on a long-overdue journey of self-discovery.

Defining “Rest”

Before I could make much progress in understanding how I can rest better, I needed to set up some definitions. After all, rest is quite an abstract concept, so working without an operational definition is like trying to hit a moving target from a moving platform. So I started by applying one of my favorite frameworks: listing + labeling. This is a great way to bring order and understanding to an otherwise unorganized mess of information. After all, there are a lot of things that I do to rest. I find exercise restful, but I also find a good meal restful. I can rest by playing video games, but I can also rest by going for a hike. After taking a quick inventory of the various ways that I “rest,” I started to group them based on similarities. It took a few tries, but I ended up with the following list of categories.

  1. Nature
  2. Video Games / Movies
  3. Coffee / Tea
  4. Food
  5. Naps
  6. Massages
  7. Exercise

This helped me begin to wrap my mind around the definition of rest, but I needed to dig deeper if I wanted to actually define it. I essentially had a bunch of ingredients but didn’t really understand the dynamic between those ingredients or how they come together to create rest. So I applied another favorite framework: the 2×2 matrix. This is a great way to understand the relationships between abstract concepts. But it can be tricky to identify dimensions along which the comparisons will take place. After some consideration, I picked Level of Physical Activity (ranging from Active to Passive) and Degree of Social Interaction (ranging from Solo to Social). This was because these two dimensions represented the two main factors that I typically consider when deciding on what kind of rest to engage in.

The Ambivert’s Dilemma

The decision to examine the social dimension of rest might require a bit of an explanation about my own personal backstory. It’s well known that there are introverts and there are extroverts. However, like most things, this is also not so black and white. There are also those who fall in between. Each time I have taken a personality test from the Meyer Briggs to the Big 5 to OCEAN, I always fall directly in the middle of the scale when it comes to introversion and extroversion.

This isn’t a humble-brag. Some people might think that being an ambivert is kind of getting the best of both worlds because we can do well in both loud social settings and in quiet contemplation. But it also creates a unique set of challenges when it comes to rest. We effectively have no clear-cut way to consistently charge our batteries. A hot cup of tea and a good book might do the trick one day but become exhaustingly boring the next.

Let’s Get Mathematical

Laying out the various restful activities in a 2×2 helps me visualize the relationships between each of them. But this leads me to wonder how these relationships can be even more precisely represented so we can actually begin to measure what it means to rest. To reach this final level of precision, I applied one last framework: formulation. This is where you represent a complex abstract idea by writing it out as a mathematical formula. The variables represent the various factors that affect rest and operators represent the dynamics between those factors. So after some tinkering, this is the formula I came up with:


S. I find that sleep is the single greatest and most consistent determiner of how well-rested I am.

N. Napping is a very close second to getting a good night’s sleep. However, I find that it’s never quite as efficient as night-time sleep, which is why it’s modeled here as divided by 2 (which means it’s only half as effective)

H * I. Hours * Intensity is basically a speed formula (Time * Speed = Distance). The product of time spent doing something and the rate (or in this case intensity) will yield the magnitude of the value.

W. This is the overall amount of that particular activity throughout the week. This is important to note because if I did a lot of “active work” (i.e. running around meeting people, doing presentations, etc) in a week, then doing a lot of “active rest” (i.e. going to the gym, going out to eat and socializing with friends, etc) might actually be more tiring than restful.

Where We Are Now

This was a long, convoluted, and rather a nerdy way to go about this mission to get more rest, but in the end, what began as a thought exercise became a framework for iteration and exploration. I began to apply this formula on a weekly basis as I evaluated how restfulness of each week and continued to refine my formula. I’ve begun to do mid-week calculations so I could actively make adjustments to my plans if that particular week was coming in quite low on the restfulness scale. I’ve also been able to experiment with new methods of resting and seeing how they fit into the current formula, but also how it could change and update the formula.

This is something that I think our students at The Spike Lab need to work on. The trap that ambitious and talented young people often fall into is the trap of burnout: being so busy and so tired that you eventually just lose all motivation and quit. It’s a hard lesson, but sometimes you need to slow down in order to go faster, and sometimes you need to lay down in order to run.