Work vs Play vs Rest

As someone who is lucky enough to work for herself, and who likes her work very much, I find it very difficult to take downtime. I LIKE working, damn it! Why should I be tethered to some arbitrary constraint of working hours?

And yet, this tends to blow up in my face. High as I’m flying when I’m working, if I go too long, there’s a gruesome crash at the end of it.

I’m good at taking care of some constraints. I know my body is quite finicky, and prone to fits if I starve it for food or sleep, so I rarely ever do. (Last week I missed a meal, and I spent the next two days trying to keep food down. My big, beautiful brain, utterly at the mercy of this persnickety body. ) So why can’t I regulate my activities in such a way as to avoid having meltdowns like an overstressed toddler?

Wisdom from Unlikely Places

There’s a nifty brand of personal finance called “Financial Independence” and the biggest blogger in this field is Mr Money Mustache.  He’s quite good. He saved 50-60% of his income and retired after only ten years of working. He is officially “retired”.

I’m sure we all want to be retired some day. But we’re not going to spend day in and day out rocking on the front porch or perhaps playing the odd game of checkers.

And neither does MMM. He likes to do woodworking and small construction projects, flip houses, and of course, blog. However, some people still think of those activities as work (he’s getting paid, you see) so he wrote an absolutely hilarious post/rant about what constitutes “work”.

“The “internet retirement police” (IRP), which you’ll meet in various online forums, have established five main directives:

In principle you can only participate in certain pre-approved retirement activities such as beach-sitting, staring out the window, and receiving visits from your grandchildren.

Traveling is also okay, as is eating “delicious food”, just make sure you don’t cook it yourself. Think twice before doing anything that’s not on this list! The IRP is watching you.

The IRP does grant one exemption should you become bored with the activities above. You can work for a nonprofit organization. Make sure you’re not getting paid though even if you have to plead your case with the CEO to put in special exemptions. Accepting money obviously means you didn’t do your retirement-math and that you ran out of money a couple of years after retiring. After all, what other obvious explanation could there be? (Besides the obvious ones) If you can’t find a way to work without pay, it’s best to head back to the beach towel and sit on that.

Just to be clear: You’re most definitely NOT allowed to be a kayak-instructor in your retirement. While it may sound like a fun job that you picked yourself even if you didn’t have to, the keyword is J-O-B. You can, however, spend a Saturday morning dressed up as an elephant handing out fliers and free lemonade at the entrance. And if you really must instruct in kayaking, please avoid doing something more engaging than blogging about kayaks (and if you do blog, try not to make the blog popular… because … then the blog would be a job!).”

(Technically, this quote is a quote from the ur-FI blogger, Jacob Lund Fisker, whose blog, I am delighted to note, is live again after a long hiatus.)

While we are not all “retired,” I think pretty much everyone reading this is more like the above-mentioned kayak instructor than not, what with our “fun jobs we picked ourselves.”

Buzz, buzz, buzz

Our work, our fun jobs, tend to be high in flow. But you can’t be in flow indefinitely—or maybe that’s what enlightenment is, I don’t know. But what I do know is that as much as I love my client calls, they pack a helluva whollup. And writing is almost as draining.

I’m sure that whatever your thing is, you have flow activities as well.

So, hypothetically, I could have 4 client calls a day, and sleep about 12 hours a day, and during the other six hours I’d probably feebly attempt to bash out coherent emails and read Gawker. Or I could have 2 client calls a day, 2-3 hours of writing a day, and you might get a return email from me in 4-6 weeks. Or, I can do what I currently do, which is 2-3 calls M-W, and Th/Fri is given over to writing and creating.

Or at least that’s the plan. But what actually seems to happen is that I write, and then I have calls, and then I email, and then I plot and then I write some more, and I make supper and I read, and I’d really like to write about what I’m thinking about at I read but I’m far too brain-dead and so I fall asleep at 10pm because I am an old woman.

I LOVE each and everything I spend my time on— but for some reason it’s not as restful as I think it should be.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. =D

Part of the reason for this, I’m convinced, is that because we’re self-employed, we see an immediate and direct correlation between the work we do and the success or fulfillment we achieve. That creates a positive feedback loop— working hard produces all sorts of great things for us, so of course we work harder. Why not? But there’s no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. We have to feed this cycle somehow. So how do you make sure you’re fueling yourself properly?

Working hard produces all sorts of great things for us, so of course we work harder.

The Artist’s Way

Julia Cameron talks about this in The Artist’s Way. She refers to these rejuvenating activities as ‘filling the well’, and there does seem to be some evidence that people who work less are happier and more productive than the people who work more. She advocates taking your inner child on play-dates.

I think this is a good way to think about it, because there is a general tendency to make our play “productive.” I think this is because in our over-scheduled lives “if you don’t schedule it, you won’t do it.” Just leaving an hour open here or there leads to defaulting to the lowest common denominator (often TV) or using the hour to guiltily “catch up” on some other work that slipped through the cracks.

But thinking about it like you would a child is very smart.

We know that kids need unscheduled time to play without constraints.

We know that working them past a certain point is utterly useless.

We know that too much stimulation causes meltdowns and makes them require naps (or at least a time out in a quiet room.)

Shockingly, adults’ needs aren’t so very different.


Differentiating between Play and Rest

I used to be a member of the “Work Hard, Play Hard” school of thought. But since I started allowing myself to be the introverted Highly Sensitive Person I am, I notice that playing hard doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to full rejuvenation. For that I need Rest.

The reason for this is a psychological state called arousal. Arousal isn’t as erotic as it sounds. It just means that your body is alert. If it’s negative arousal, your body is alert and stressed. Positive arousal is when your body is alert, but calm.

The flow state that we enjoy when doing our best work is positive arousal. However, you can’t maintain a state of high alert forever without stress creeping in. That’s why the work hard/play hard model is flawed. Eventually, you must come out of a state of arousal to rest. Extroverts may need less rest than introverts, but the still need some. If you don’t get it, you are like an overstimulated child, on the verge of a meltdown, and in dire need of respite from busy surroundings.

The difference between Play and Rest is subtle. Only you can gauge your level of arousal. For me, TV is play, because it is emphatically not restful. Rest is more like chilling on the front porch with a glass of wine watching the fireflies. Or it might be reading a cheesey space opera. Unless it’s too funny. Then it’s arousing and becomes play. Are you confused yet?

Similarly, Play projects might become Rest tasks, similar to the way that some people enjoy puttering around, tidying things up at the end of the day, and others see it as a dreaded inconvenience. A certain task can even switch depending on how stressed we are at the moment, so you really have to go at your own pace, and be prepared to switch things up if your chosen activity isn’t meeting your needs.

But what about Work?

Differentiating between Work and Play When They Are All Too Similar

Our work is very rewarding. Being rewarded is fun, hence work is fun. However, the tasks we do with our jobs have certain details associated with them that do make them Work. As ‘kayak instructors’, we have to show up for all the classes, whether we want to or not. Freelancers have deadlines, and often not too much choice in subject matter. Writers don’t get to play parcheesi until inspiration strikes. Sometimes you just don’t get to say ‘Fuck it’ and go fishing.

But work is not so terrible that I’m ready to put it to bed at 5pm. In fact, I’m often cranky at 5pm because I’m just getting my second wind but my stomach is demanding supper. If I go back to work after supper, it’s a 50/50 chance I’m going to over-arouse myself and not do any Rest before bed. (Your personal cycles will vary, of course, but I think everyone does better with at least an hour of Rest before bed.)

Same thing with weekends. Not working weekends is torture. I have often “joked” that I literally cannot have fun unless there’s a goal involved. But again, it has to do with arousal– having a target in mind makes me a bit more competitive than aimless, and that puts my mind in the arousal “sweet spot” that is most enjoyable to me. But it’s a double-edged knife. As soon as stress starts to tinge the arousal, BAM! Overwhelm and burnout strike.

I shared this sentiment with Erin, and she agreed. Her trick, she said, was to do a project that had no deadline.

I was gobsmacked by this small, brilliant differentiator (it seems obvious, but I’d truly never thought of it). I’d even go a step further and say that the concept of “should” shouldn’t be anywhere near it. For instance, if you feel like switching out your winter wardrobe for your summer wardrobe as a weekend project, go for it. But if you catch yourself thinking, “I really should put away my winter clothes this weekend,” you’re not Playing. You’re Working.

Your Turn

How good are you at monitoring your arousal? Is it hard to keep track of whether you’re working or playing? What sorts of activities work as Rest for you?


7 thoughts on “Work vs Play vs Rest”

  1. First of all, let me say that the website redesign is fresh! “Fresh” as in 1990s “that’s fresh/dope/rad/awesome.”
    Next up, let me say that extroverts need just as much rest as introverts. The problem with extroverts – including me – is that we (generally) won’t *admit* that we need as much rest as introverts. I feel that operating at a high state of arousal for anyone, for any extended period of time, isn’t good. Then you either start to feel you need to continue operating at that high arousal level or else something’s “wrong.” Life’s a constant balance of rejuvenation and dejuvenation. Nobody’s an exception to this balance in my experience.
    And no, it’s not hard to keep track of when I’m working or playing. Because I’m lucky enough to be working AND playing at the same time often. I’m a grateful dude.

    1. @joeyjoejoe >operating at a high state of arousal for anyone, for any extended period of time, isn’t good.
      Oh, I agree. It’s just that extroverts don’t find as many things arousing as HSP/introverts do. As a fairly extroverted HSP, even I think “Holy crap, how do you even cope?” When I see how much recovery time an introverted HSP needs from, say, a hairdressing shift. 
      Thanks for the compliment! We’re getting the kinks worked out.

  2. I kind of love the idea of enlightenment as always being in flow 🙂
    Also, totally agree with the idea that “should” shouldn’t be involved. There’s a subtle difference for me between a project I want to do at a particular time and a project I suppose I should probably tackle. And a particular project isn’t always one kind of thing or the other. For instance, coming off a not-so-relaxing vacation that followed a behind-the-scenes busy period of work, I’ve ended up absorbed in the project of sorting through and reading the books on my shelves to further cull my collection in anticipation of a possible move — something that’s been on the list for a while but I never really got around to. Now it’s all I want to do…which makes it gloriously restful for me. And that is something I need at the moment. Ha! Look at that. Now I see why the pull is so strong.
    Generally I’m pretty bad at monitoring my arousal levels. If I’m working well, I want to keep going. If I’m enjoying myself playing, I want more of it. And true rest is really hard for me. Friday nights in the bath with a book have become a mainstay, but I know I need to identify other activities and build them into my day.

  3. I’m very good at monitoring arousal. It’s a version of what I think of as alertness, probably it’s highest form, when I feel most “present.” I would say singing and tennis are the most focused aroused states I actually practice, well, and sex. Conversation, improv, making art and sometimes writing are next.
    Play or playfulness is when boundaries drop and ambitions are left behind and pleasure is the main emotion. It’s a type of arousal rather than a measure of it.
    Rest catagories include deep sleep, 20-minute naps, and occasional blissful space-outs, like at a party where I’m really tired and I get to lean on someone and just listen to conversation or music. It’s a way of prolonging that cozy feeling right before you fall asleep.
    Ultimately, rest is measured by how rested I feel afterwards. A 20-minute afternoon nap can turn into an energy pit if I let it go on to long and fall into a deeper dream state. I’m still learning about my own circadian rhythms. 
    Rest is an very interesting topic. Last I read about it, we still don’t understand that much about why we need it. But we go crazy if we don’t get it.

  4. My “should” activities are usually work. Housework, errands, and making money. Even if I’m getting paid to do something I like, it’s still work. Once money is in the picture it’s a job. Play is being alert to or engaging with what interests me at any given moment – socializing, painting, TV, reading, writing, to name a few. My rest is anytime I have no agenda or have to exert much effort which usually happens in solitude unless I’m with a friend that is OK with me not doing or saying much – laying down, sitting in a rocking chair, spacing out. I consider myself an HSP too, so rest to me is more about taking a break from stimulation and distractions that I’m sensitive too. 
    I do agree, you have to break from arousal. I noticed that the other day when I was writing. I wrote for several hours, like way too many hours… and after I felt like I never wanted to write again. Obviously, that was just a temporary feeling, but that burnt out feeling is really not conducive to creativity and it kills the joy for me. It’s hard to break from a project, though when you do feel like you’re in a flow. But, I don’t think the flow is worth it  if it’s going to burn me out. I used to think so, but I’ve experienced better results from breaking at a certain point regardless of my state of flow and coming back to it.

  5. How am I monitoring my arousal? Teeheeeheee.  Okay, 7th grade jokes aside: I don’t really monitor it. I think I just go with what I’m interested in and see where it leads me.  
    There’s a term I like to use for myself, and other people who are self employed but really happy with what they are doing: Funemployed. It’s fun saying that at parties and gatherings when people ask you what they do. A lot of times I sense an accusatory note in the question (how do you have time off to do X Y or Z.. what do you do?). And I respond that I’m funemployed.

  6. michaelwroberts

    I really struggle to do something fun solely for the sake of fun. TV watching gets to be pretty boring pretty quickly unless I’m watching something for research (documentaries, TED videos, etc.)
    Still, I find myself burning out if I don’t take time completely away from anything “work” related. My brain stops processing new information, and I end up staring at a book or a blog without comprehending.
    I try to read fiction purely for the sake of reading whenever I can. It’s one way I know that I can try something different without an agenda involved.

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