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What's all the fuss about doing nothing?

Updated: May 20, 2020

Much ado about nothing... Well, let's explore this together.

Rest has become a much sought after, sometimes elusive thing in modern urban society. We are constantly on the run and we are always busy. Worst still, most of us don't get enough sleep every night, myself included. Our bodies were never meant to be constantly working. Over time, we begin to notice side effects of this continual overuse of our bodies.

There was a time when I used to feel guilty about resting. If I took some time for myself, I would feel anxious or just guilt-ridden about doing nothing. I would torture myself and even feel exhausted and/or depressed. There is a prevailing attitude in the American professional culture that we must work a lot and incessantly work hard. I've even seen "motivational" quotes about how one must be the first to arrive at work and last to leave if they want to succeed. So, it's not actually surprising that most of us have it ingrained in us that we must work all the time, endlessly and give all of ourselves to work.

My battle between my health and my career

Two years ago I found myself chronically stressed, burnt out and completely drained, both physically and creatively. I was anxious and had trouble falling and staying asleep. I found myself having a lot more allergy flare-ups, gastrointestinal irregularities and even new pain and aches that became disruptive in my daily living.

In early 2018, I had a growing feeling that I needed to take care of my body and mind or I would cross a threshold into a major health crisis. I persisted with work, because I was so close to achieving a major milestone in my life: to be able to finish the points required to take my architecture licensing exams. I wasn't one to give up and in my calculations, if I just hung in there until September, I would be able to save up enough and go on my own as I had always planned.

In March 2018, triggered by a loss of a family member and a series of terrible allergic reactions, I just spiraled to a dark place. I got into an unnecessary scuffle with a mentor and friend at work, which made me realize I wasn't myself. Then, I spent April realizing I had to take charge of my life again. So late April, I tendered my resignation and took time off. I was determined to break bad habits and give myself the space to heal and make space to grow. I wanted to feel like myself again.

Where it started

Looking back at my childhood, leisure activities, rest or “downtime” were not viewed as necessities by my parents. They worked all the time. When they were not at work, they made sure to pack their schedules with cleaning, organizing, social obligations and work. We hardly played together. We didn't take many fun trips together. Part of it had to do with how modest their income was. But also, I think, they thought rest, recreation, and play were a waste of time. Sri Lankan culture also has very strong work ethics. We are taught to work hard and that hard work will pay off. So, I know a lot of my workaholism came from the cultures that I have been steeped in.

I was 16 when I decided I wanted to become an architect. My parents couldn't afford to send me to the US to study architecture. I did not give up and sought a viable trajectory. I landed a lucrative job in the clothing industry at 19, because I of my communication skills in English. I was working as a liaison between Nike and manufacturing facilities. I was working 60-75 hours a week regularly and rose into the ranks of management. I also enrolled with the Chartered Institute of Marketing (UK) and started taking distance learning classes in the remaining waking hours.

Then, in 2006, I took a leap of faith. I applied to architecture school in NYC and got in. I went all in and gathered the little money I have saved and paid for the one year of tuition that would at least help me launch the beginning of my architect career. With the help of my amazing two friends I was finally able to go to college in the US to study architecture in 2007. I didn't know at the time that architecture is one of the most demanding degrees and career paths. I had to work a few part time jobs in order to keep myself fed and pay basic bills. So, at this phase, too, I found myself putting in between 90-120 hours a week between school, work, and studies and volunteering. I was barely getting 4 hours of sleep a night.

By 2010, I was 29 years old and as much as I wanted to blame it on my age, I knew something was wrong.I was feeling overwhelmed with everything I was doing. My body wasn't as resilient, and I just didn’t feel the same energy as I did when I was younger. I noticed unexplainable weight gain, persistent feelings of depression, and this ongoing feeling of stress. When I finished architecture school in 2014, I already felt burnt out. However, in launching my architect career, I was offered an opportunity to be mentored by two renowned architects in Southern California. Without taking a breather, I took that offer of a lifetime and started working right away —this was only 10 days after I presented and completed my thesis in front of a world class jury for graduation.

Breaking the habits: A real break

Was I turning into my parents? I had only given myself 2 breaks prior to 2018. The first was in 2003, when I came to the US to visit colleges, and and to plan out my living situation. I was on the East Coast for 7 months. I did a few volunteering gigs and took some courses for 20 hours a week. There was a lot of time for myself because I was not able to work due to visa restrictions. The second “break” was when I moved to Miami with Nelson, my now husband, in 2009. I was waiting for school transfers and worked part-time around 20 hours a week. I volunteered another 20 hours a week. This was, again, my version of a vacation.

For the first time in my life, I finally gave myself a legitimate break when I left my job in 2018: intentionally and completely. For once in my life, I gave myself the permission to completely live without structure or timelines. I just let myself be. I woke up when my eyes decided to open, not by an alarm clock. I went to the grocery store to gather my favorite ingredients to cook for my husband and I. The little things that I have taken for granted.I reached out to my friends and families, just to chat with no alternative motives. I took walks at the park with absolutely no agenda. It took me almost two months to start feeling myself again; meaning, getting back my energy that I have once lost, regained the creative thoughts and perspectives, recapture the focus that had dissipated in my brain fog but most importantly, putting myself first before others.

Then, I started to slowly introduce structure again. That period has been one of the most healing and transformative times in my life. I had allowed for wonderful new things to emerge. This is how Neumascape Studio, my design firm, came about and subsequently, Neuma Being. It happened because I surrendered to those moments of emergence.

The Benefits of Rest

There is a growing body of information becoming available about how rest is ESSENTIAL for our bodies and our minds to function properly. A fascinating article by Ferris Jbar on Scientific American from 2013 explores why our brains need downtime. Jbar posits that "throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy."

Another study, published in National Institute of Health, found a possible correlation between naps and reduced tension in the bodies of the subjects tested. A Stanford study talks about the positive effects of walking for creative thinking. I recall how I made walking for exercise a part of my routine in recovery. Another paper discusses the value of the incubation period for creativity and the author suggests "that it is not merely the absence of conscious thought that drives creativity, but that during an incubation period unconscious processes can contribute to creative thinking."

If you ask any professional athletes, they can impress upon how critical rest is for their performance. Most of them have strict schedules of how they train and when they rest. They understand the role of rest for peak performance of their bodies and mind. Even though most of us don't play sports professionally, we do still perform in our lives. We are required to perform at our jobs, perform duties for our family and friends, and still be able to take care of ourselves and the community. In that sense, we are all "athletes" of life. So why shouldn't ALL OF US prioritize rest?

"Quality rest allows the body to heal and recover. Especially, when we reach stage 4 and REM sleep/ deep sleep. Cortisol, a stress hormone can stay elevated for those who don't get a good night sleep and can affect other hormonal control. Good quality sleep decreases inflammation and plays a role in metabolism by burning calories. So overall rest is not just good but ESSENTIAL for our overall health and wellness."

- Dr. Amy Lee, Chief Medical Officer at Lindora and advisor for Nucific

Rest has many benefits, such as:

  • Better mental health

  • Improved emotional resilience

  • Improved physical health including less pain, inflammation, and improved immune system

  • Reduction of fatigue and exhaustion

  • Reduction of stress

  • Creative insights and inspiration, including those occurring during lucid sleep states

  • Improved clarity of thought

  • Improved level of happiness

  • Improved self-awareness and somatic awareness: a greater sense of connection to one's self, the surroundings, and the respective communities / social groups

  • A greater sense of connection to purpose

  • Improved sense of overall well-being

  • Vitality and vigor

  • Improved productivity, decision-making and performance

The list goes on. Take a look at our growing list of studies and articles archived in our Research Vault that looks at the science of rest, mindfulness, and heightened states if you are looking to find more data on this topic.

Rest can look like many different things to different people. For some people it's restful to clean. For others it's restful to just sit and read a book. Here are some of the most popular ways most people rest:

  • Sleep / nap

  • A lucid sleep session (on your couch or, even better, on the Cymatix at Neuma Mind Spa)

  • Read a book

  • Gardening

  • Meditate / Yoga

  • A cool / warm shower or a good soak

  • Self-care activities: Spa day

  • Outdoor activity: Go for a walk / Forest bathing / hiking / beach day

  • Exercise / play a sport / other physical activities

  • Sex and intimacy

  • Watch a movie / TV

  • Cook

  • Clean

  • Play with kids and/or pets

  • Hanging out and other social activities with friends and family

  • Sketching, free-styling with music instruments or playing with Legos

In conclusion, I want to emphasize the value of rest and recreation for our existence and our growth. Here, at Neuma Being, we emphasize rest, play, and emotional well-being because we feel that these are among the pillars and the foundation of the work that we do. Our techniques and technology help those who care and create for L.A. and the world, by facilitating deep relaxation and creative states of mind. We also find that these empower our own work!

If you need any assistance in working through finding balance between rest, work, and play, give us a call. We are here for you!

- Manori

Additional Resources:

How resting more can boost your productivity by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in Greater Good Magazine from UC Berkley

To be more creative schedule more breaks by Jackson G. Lu, Modupe Akinola, and Malia Mason on Harvard Business Review

Pause, Ponder, Prioritize by Vala Afshar in ZDnet

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