Do Less. It’s Good for You

7 minute read

You take a vacation day, but get distracted by the thought of your work inbox filling up. Or you sit down to watch a movie and immediately feel guilty about all the tasks still on your to-do list. Or perhaps you splurge on a massage, but barely enjoy it because your thoughts are racing the entire time.

If any of these sound familiar, you’re not alone. Relaxing may sound like the easiest thing in the world, but for many people it’s anything but. 

Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, learned that a decade ago, when she helped design a study to test the effects of letting people do nothing but sit with their thoughts for a few minutes. “We had this idea that if we gave people a few moments in their busy days to just sit and slow down and be alone with their thoughts, that they’d find it really enjoyable and it would be relaxing and increase well-being,” Westgate says. The opposite happened: people were so uncomfortable doing nothing that many opted to give themselves small electric shocks instead.

Doing nothing, as Westgate’s study illustrated, can be difficult because most of us aren’t used to thinking without turning those thoughts into actions—a disconnect that can be “incredibly cognitively intense,” she says.

Researchers including Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology at the Pennsylvania State University, have also studied the concepts of “relaxation anxiety” and “relaxation sensitivity,” which relate to the discomfort, boredom, or unease some people feel when they slow down. For some, “There’s this view that, ‘I should always be busy doing something,’” Newman says. “Often people feel like it’s not okay to just be reading a good book or watching a good program on TV.”

No wonder. Productivity and hard work are nothing if not the American Way, with mainstream institutions from government to church urging people to stay busy, says Celeste Headlee, author of the book Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. “Our society has valued really, really toxic things,” she says. “We have for generations been brainwashed” to believe that productivity is morally superior to rest—so it’s no wonder relaxing sometimes feels uncomfortable or even wrong, Headlee says. Research shows that people are, to varying degrees, motivated by what they feel they “should” be doing; some may feel guilty when they deviate from that.

Rebecca Schaumberg, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has studied the positive side of work-related guilt, finding that people who are guilt-prone tend to be more productive and reliable workers. But in recent years, she says, she has come to question whether guilt is good for people, or just the organizations that employ them. “Guilt can be good in the workplace, but it doesn't always mean it’s good for the person who feels it,” she says—especially if it prevents them from ever taking time to step away and decompress.

The truth is, rest and relaxation are vital to well-being. Chronic stress negatively affects nearly every aspect of mental and physical health, even contributing to higher risks for chronic disease and premature death. Meanwhile, rest may boost your health, quality of life, and longevity. Getting better at resting and relaxing, then, isn’t frivolous; it could actually be lifesaving.

Here’s how to start.

Reframe what "counts" as rest

If the idea of meditating makes you break out in hives, that’s okay. Scientifically speaking, “relaxation” just means activating your parasympathetic nervous system—the one that handles bodily processes you don’t think about, like breathing and digestion—instead of your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of your stress response, says Christina Luberto, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who has studied relaxation. “You can elicit that physiological state in any activity that involves a single, pointed focus while setting aside intrusive or unrelated distractions,” Luberto explains.

Anything from gardening to cooking to reading to your kids could fit the bill, she says. These activity-oriented forms of relaxation may be especially beneficial for people who don’t enjoy slower mindfulness practices, like meditation. Often, Luberto says, the pressure to feel zen during these sessions contributes to anxiety—so trying to push through a “relaxation” practice that isn’t working for you may do more harm than good.

Read More: How to Get Real Rest

Westgate seconds that advice. People often ruminate and get anxious if they simply sit and think about what they need to do or what happened to them that day—but find it restorative to write those thoughts in a journal. “By actually physically doing something…we’re reducing some of the [cognitive] demand,” Westgate says. In other words, it can be helpful to do a little something when you’re doing nothing.

Set boundaries

When work creeps into your personal life—ducking out of Sunday brunch to check your emails, for example—that’s “polluted time,” Headlee says. If your relaxation hours are polluted, you’re not reaping their full benefits. What’s more, you may be reinforcing the idea that you “should” be accomplishing tasks even during your downtime. 

To keep your free time free, Headlee recommends writing down your working hours and posting them somewhere visible as a reminder to yourself. Just as a store wouldn’t reopen for a customer who arrived after it closed, Headlee says, you shouldn’t make exceptions to your hours when you get a late-night email or feel the itch to check in with the boss on a Sunday afternoon. “Closed is closed,” she says. For extra reinforcement, consider adding a line about your working hours to your email signature or telling your friends and family about the boundaries you’ve set so they can hold you accountable.

Remember to relax your body, too

Lots of people walk around with muscular tension that keeps them in a stressed-out state, feeling frazzled even when they’re trying to relax. Newman recommends tensing, then releasing, different muscles in the body to help release pent-up stress. Breathing exercises can also help catalyze a relaxation response.

Read More: How to Get Back to Sleep After Waking Up at Night

Consider seeing a therapist

Not all busy people have relaxation anxiety or sensitivity, Luberto notes. If you’re active by nature but also enjoy your downtime, however occasional, there’s probably no cause for concern. But if relaxing feels hard or impossible to you—whether because you’re guilty or anxious or distracted—it may be time to call on a professional, she says. Psychological techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy may help.

Start small, then practice

If you struggle to unwind, don’t dive straight into the deep end by booking a weeklong beach vacation. Start by finding small moments in your day to practice slowing down and getting comfortable just being. And pick moments strategically, choosing those when you’re most likely to succeed—like during your morning shower, Westgate says.

Like most things in life, resting gets easier the more you do it, Headlee says. Slowing down may feel uncomfortable or even shameful at first, but once you train your brain, it will get easier, she says. “It’s going to take a little time to teach your brain that you can not answer that email and nothing will happen, nothing will explode,” Headlee says. “You just have to keep doing it.”

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