Work, rest and play all affect each other. They are a spiraling interdependent cycle: doing well at one makes it easier to do the others, and doing poorly at any of them makes the others go harder. (Diet, exercise, sex and sleeping work the same way, as do praying, forgiving, and acts of kindness.)
Work includes the job you do for a living, but also child care, helping friends and family, volunteer service, and household maintenance. It usually takes up about two fifths of your time when the kids are at home and in need, and a little less after that.
Rest involves more than sleep. It includes all forms of relaxing down time, such as taking in music, pleasure reading, solitary TV or computer time, etc. We’ll include personal grooming and hygiene here. All this should take up roughly one third of your time, more if you need eight hours of sleep, or if you’re female, older, or retired.
Play is activity that leaves you recreated, refreshed. It includes things like exercise, playing sports, learning, worship, praying, lovemaking, visiting live or on the phone or the internet, and going to festivals, plays movies, concerts, ball games, etc. Shopping for clothes, tools, play equipment, or house furnishings is usually play, but solitary shopping for groceries and provisions is clearly work.
Play usually gets the leftover time, but if we give it less than one fifth of our time, we’re probably getting burned out. The quality of our work and rest is suffering, because the worker is not getting recreated by rest alone.
The quantity of time you spend in work, rest, and play is no more important than the quality of that time. Mental health requires that we change gears well, that we do only one thing at a time. Thinking about work when we should be at rest or at play, or vice-versa, is called worry—leaving the here-and-now to be there-and-then. Worry screws up whatever we should be doing at the time.
When we don’t do enough of our work, we often work on other people instead. When we have too few responsibilities, we tend to take on those of other people. This form of worry is called meddling, and it screws up the work, rest and play of both parties.
A key to being focused and efficient in our work, rest and play is how we make our transitionsfrom one into the other. We need to mark our changing gears clearly so that we and everybody else knows which gear we are in. If you have trouble shifting into the play of your personal life, get something going like Mr. Rogers’ slippers to remind you that work is over. How?
On your way home, turn your phone off and think about family and play. When you get in the door, put your cell phone away, or change it to a different ring that reminds you it’s family first, and it’s time for everybody’s recreation. If you can help it at all, don’t take business calls during family time.
As soon as you see your spouse, make it a point and habit to kiss your spouse–not just a peck, but a good, checking-in kiss. Sit down together and ask how each other’s day has gone so far. Review plans or hopes for the evening. Once in the door, change your clothes. Take off your watch. Don’t be waiting around for a hug or try to take one, but give the kids a hug.
One last tip: don’t try to go straight from work to rest, and then think you might play. Once you numb out, your emotional heart goes to sleep, and you’re pretty much shot for the day. Work and play first, then get your rest. You’ll sleep a lot better and do better work tomorrow.
With any activity or relationship, here are five signs you might need to take a break and give it a rest for awhile:
1. You’re losing interest or passion. You’re burning out, forgetting what you’re really doing here, what’s the point.
2. You’re losing focus or concentration, so that your mind is often distracted by other things you’d rather be doing, other people you’d rather be with.
3. You’re obsessed, preoccupied, and giving too much focus and concentration. You’re thinking or worrying about something or someone when you can’t do anything about it.
4. You have too much passion for it, so that your devotion and enthusiasm is giving more important activities or relationships reason to feel neglected.
5. You’re stuck in a negative, self-defeating pattern of interaction. You know you should change, but don’t know how. You do the same thing over and over but still stupidly expect different results.
Until now we’ve been talking about taking a break to solve problems. The best use of breaks is to take them periodically to prevent problems, to keep the focus, passion, health and balance sharp.
Periodic preventive breaks like this are called sabbatical breaks. They come from the Jewish tradition which sees God as taking off on the seventh day after creating the world in six. The Old Testament God included as one of the Ten Commandments resting from all labor on the Sabbath day. The Torah even teaches farmers to rest their fields every seven years.
Colleges have realized the wisdom of this tradition by giving tenured professors a “sabbatical” from their duties for a semester or a year every seven years. Many churches prevent burn-out by letting their pastors take a similar sabbatical time-out for study, travel and rest every seven years.
However, most Americans do not take either periodic preventive time-outs for sabbatical rest or curative breaks for a prelude to their problem-solving. The result is a loss of mental health, such as in the five examples above.
One interesting testimonial to value of taking long breaks is the mental health industry in Japan. When Japanese people get anxious, depressed, explosively angry, addicted, or torn up in their relationships, the counseling wizards in Japan all prescribe morita therapy, and I’m embarrassed to say it appears to work about as well for them as psychotherapy or medication do for us Americans. So what is it?
Morita comes from the Japanese word for sleep. Therapy is solitary confinement from contact with the outside world. They give a two- to four-week break from all relationships and activities except meditation and sleep. It’s a little frustrating, frightening, and rather revealing how hard that is to do in America.