The Art of Rest - Claudia Hammond

For the first time in literally years I'm getting a decent amount of rest. I'm taking a bunch of time off from a rather stressful job on medical leave, and while the treatment has made rest pretty difficult, I feel I have successfully dredged up teenage memories of the technique and achieved rest. ;)

In some ways, therefore, this is a slightly odd book to get, but I always like to read a book on a subject when I attempt it - and hence my wife saw this and thought of me.

Claudia Hammond is a science writer and broadcaster, who's written a few popsci books and collaborated on "The Rest Test", a huge global survey, as part of a Wellcome Trust project. She should therefore be well placed to talk about rest.

As such, the overall structure is a little disappointing. She takes the top ten things people like to do to rest, based on The Rest Test survey, and writes a chapter on each. Each chapter is like a science Just A Minute, filling up a chapter's-worth of talking about that subject, albeit with a bunch more research than one usually sees in Just A Minute.

Despite that, a few things leap out, maybe obvious but worth repeating. A lot has been made of the important of sleep, but rest is important too. It's also quite distinct from sleep - often restful activities are quite stimulating - whether physically, with a walk or a run, or mentally, with an absorbing book. Short rests when working pay dividends. It seems to be important that rest is a change, and under our control - "meditating quietly" sounds restful, "sitting around waiting" does not. Claudia suggests we reframe unplanned pauses into opportunities for rest, but without control I don't think that's very plausible.

Being bored is not restful. Rest is often doing something, even if there's no strong aim in mind - Csikszentmihalyi's Flow happens in restful activities, too. Perhaps rest is best thought of as mental decompression. If you're very busy and time-constraint driven, rest is hard, as you can't really force yourself to rest efficiently.

She emphasises the point that we often feel guilty about rest - that we feel we should always be doing something. We should give ourselves the excuse to rest, since it's good for us and even good for work. Some forms of rest give a cover rationale for the activity (reading is an improving activity, exercise is good for us, etc.), but in the end we should recognise that some rest, whatever form actually works for us, is good.

Posted 2021-10-14.