When we commoditise our time, rest seems worthless. But without it, we can't function. Is it time to embrace NOMO, the necessity of missing out?
When you are raising a family, rest is something that can slip to the bottom of the to-do list. There is always something else, whether it’s planning meals, paying bills or chaperoning play dates. Add a demanding work schedule to the mix and taking 10 minutes to shut your eyes can feel like an impossible indulgence.
“Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” declares Jenny Odell in her book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. “In a world where our value is determined by our productivity… time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing’. It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.”
In other words, time is money, and money is king.
Or is it?
“Pushing ourselves to keep going despite the fact that we’re feeling tired puts our body into a state of fight or flight,” says wellbeing advisor Thea O’Connor. That unleashes a sequence of biochemical reactions, “which are fantastic in a crisis, but when they’re happening on an ongoing daily basis, really white-ant the foundation of our being”.
Cortisol levels rise, serotonin drops, and decision-making and emotional regulation become much harder – a recipe for conflict – when parents are tired and irritable.
Science once believed that the brain goes offline when we rest, but we now know that neural activity switches to different parts of the brain during mental downtime. The best known of these neural circuits is the default mode network (DMN), which is associated with daydreaming and rumination. It’s no coincidence that, like many people, I often find the answer to a knotty problem comes to me in the shower or when I go for a walk – when my DMN is active.
The DMN provides space for reflection that is essential to our sense of self. When we rest, “the mind dips its quill into our memories, sensory experiences, disappointments and desires so that it may continue writing this ongoing first-person narrative of life,” writes Ferris Jabr in Scientific American.
Making time for rest
The ‘nothing’ in the title of Jenny Odell’s book is not nothing – it’s an active process of “refusing productivity and stopping to listen”. It’s an antidote to the overstimulation of modern life and #FOMO, which she suggests we replace with #NOMO (necessity of missing out). In other words, rest.
“We need distance and time to be functional enough to do or think anything at all,” writes Odell, for whom ‘distance’ is created by going for a walk or a trip and staying off the internet.
As my journey into parenthood has progressed, I’ve learnt I need rest to be a good mother. That could be letting the laundry wait on a Sunday afternoon and reading a book instead or simply lying on the floor for half an hour with the baby after a night of broken sleep. For others, it might be gardening, watching Netflix or meditation.
Allowing ourselves to rest isn’t just about boosting our productivity; it’s about finding the balance that we need to truly enjoy life. “I like to think of rest as a way of putting more rhythm back into our day,” says O’Connor. “Rest is like the space between notes in a song. If you have no spaces, it ends up sounding like a screech or a wail, but to create music, you need some silence.”
The most obvious form of rest is overnight sleep, says O’Connor, but it is possible to insert restful pauses into your day. It could be as simple as a ‘micro-break’ of 30 seconds every 10 minutes where you stand and stretch at your desk. You could take a five-minute walk outdoors or find a quiet spot to sit in silence. Research shows that a 10-minute power nap can restore your energy levels without interfering with your sleep come night-time. Rest encompasses more than a timeout or relaxing activities; it’s a mindset. One of the best forms of rest when we’re wakeful is a state of inner stillness, says O’Connor. “It involves being present rather than having a busy mind worrying about what happened in the past or worrying about the future.”
While achieving this form of psychological and physiological calm is a lifelong endeavour – “it is not something you cultivate overnight” – O’Connor says there are simple ways you can incorporate a replenishing sense of serenity into your day. “Breath is critical because the way we breathe turns on or off different parts of the nervous system,” explains O’Connor. “A short breath into the upper chest is going to put you into the fight-or-flight response, and that’s going to make you buzzy on the inside.”
You can practise breath awareness anywhere at any time. O’Connor recommends choosing a few anchor points in the day – before meals, for example – to slow down and check your breath and try to clear any tension from your body. Breathe in and out your nose into your lower lungs and extend the outbreath to switch your nervous system into the relaxation response.
Rest doesn’t mean wasting time or doing nothing, says O’Connor, echoing Odell. Instead, she says, rest “is an essential life skill”.