Give it a Rest!

January 22, 2024
Natasha Watkins

Natasha Watkins

There can be no question that we live in a “rise and grind” culture. Many of us see our lives of constant deadlines, ever-present projects and the juggling of multiple, often competing, responsibilities, as completely normal. In fact, we tend to romanticize our overwork (e.g., hustle culture, girl boss persona, etc.), and view it as essential for achieving the next big milestone in life. If you identify with the feeling that you need to be “doing” something at all times, you may be subscribing to what is known as toxic productivity. 

On a college campus toxic productivity can look like being over scheduled to the point that there are virtually no periods of time to relax. Or, maybe you’re that person whose motto is “I’ll sleep when I graduate.” While being involved in activities, checking tasks off your to-do lists and working to achieve your goals can bring a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, the chronic demand to work longer and harder without restorative breaks can leave you feeling depleted and disembodied. Think about how you feel during midterm or finals week when you’re pushing yourself to the max. You may experience impaired executive functioning (less alert, less focused, more forgetful, etc.), more emotional overwhelm (anxiety, irritation, etc.) and increased susceptibility to illness. When your body becomes stressed in this way, breaks are the only way to recover your functioning. Too often, however, we may ignore the signs that we need a break and push our bodies to the point that it will force us to shut down to get the break it needs.

What if we listened to our body earlier and incorporated intentional resting into our lives?  How could intentional resting facilitate mental and spiritual restoration and prevent the negative outcomes associated with toxic productivity?

Stephanie Contreras

Stephanie Contreras

Tricia Hersey, the founder of the Nap Ministry, pushes back against the cultural narratives that endorse toxic productivity by offering a framework that supports “rest as resistance.” Hersey compels us to see ourselves beyond our academic accomplishments and occupational value. This shift in perspective can alleviate us from burdensome and intrusive feelings related to overworking and empower us to value practices that bolster our holistic wellness. Grind culture distorts self-care from a necessity for human health to a luxury afforded only after someone becomes worthy of it. Hersey invites us to view rest as a divine right and, in this way, re-prioritize the “life” in life-work balance. For historically excluded groups whose labor tends to be exploited and under-compensated (e.g., women of color, and sexual and gender minorities), prioritizing self-care can be an act of defiance. A way to demonstrate this on college campuses could be minoritized students refusing to incur a “cultural taxation” wherein, on top of their academic demands (and potentially to the detriment of their academic success), they bear the responsibility for creating and leading diversity initiatives that serve the institution but with little to no institutional support.

Developing a broader sense of success that includes how good you feel in your body and your connection with others may be a way to undermine grind culture. Inspired by Hersey’s framework on rest, we offer three concrete strategies to help you carve out the time you need to rest with intention. We invite you to choose one or two to implement for the next 30 days.

  • Reclaim your time  - Build rest breaks into your schedule including time when you can practice self-care with the restoration you need (sleep, meditation, exercise, etc.) or social breaks where you enjoy time with your friends and family.
  • Say “No” or “Not right now.”  - Before you get to the point of overload, assess your capacity and priorities. If you encounter a request that goes beyond what you can or have an interest in doing, say “no” to it. If it’s something that aligns with your priorities but will exceed your capacity, say, “Not right now.”
  • Talk back to your guilt  - Sometimes saying no brings up feelings of guilt because our sense of self is intertwined with our productivity. Explore those feelings and ask yourself if, in the grand scheme, saying no to an activity truly means that you are not helpful, not a worthy person or whatever negative thought comes to mind. Choosing to care about yourself first so that you can be helpful to others later is NOT the same thing as being selfish, which is a pattern of focusing on your own needs to the detriment of others.

As you implement these strategies, check in with yourself about how you’re feeling using the strategies and how you’re feeling overall. It can initially feel uncomfortable to do a new thing, but those feelings will subside as you continue to practice. We hope that you start to feel less pressure to be productive and, instead, more connected to your body, mind and soul, as well as with others. Hersey reminds us that “Rest is our divine and human right” – our encouragement to you is to reclaim it!

Natasha Watkins is a clinical associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science. She teaches courses that prepare students for careers as professional helpers and jointly coordinates the department’s capstone internship program. In her rest time, she enjoys playing party games with friends, listening to pop culture podcasts and road trips.

Stephanie Contreras (she/her) is a fourth-year doctoral student in the counseling psychology program. She was born and raised in the Bronx, New York and spent nearly 10 years working as a resiliency specialist/administrator in a high school in North Philadelphia. There, she provided social emotional support for students and training to educators on trauma-informed practices. Broadly, her research interests focus on trauma and resilience for adolescents and emerging adults from historically excluded populations.