Guess what? You can.

Because my great-grandparents grew olives, I’ve learned a lot about olive trees over the years. Olives are an “alternate bearing crop,” which means that they produce a lot of fruit one year, then basically rest the following year (producing what is called a “short crop”).

The more I think about this phenomenon, the more I think it speaks volumes about how to lead a happy—and fruitful—life. In addition to being a symbol of peace, olives are also a metaphor for how rest is a route to productivity.

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In today’s hyperbusy world, most people don’t rest much. I can certainly be guilty of this, which you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been reading this blog for long. Rest is a topic I return to again and again in my Tuesday Tips, my online classes, and my speaking engagements.

Here’s what I’ve learned: It is a myth that we succeed through unceasing and tireless effort. Yes, research does find that consistent and deliberate practice leads to elite performance in many fields. But focused work and consistent practice are not the same thing as unending work. Olympic athletes must rest or they get hurt. Fruit trees forced to produce for more than one season lose their ability to bear fruit. And us worker bees can slowly develop sleep debt so deep and burnout so profound that we are left too exhausted to function.

When health problems forced me to dramatically change my work schedule last fall—cutting back 10 hours a week or more—something amazing happened: My productivity actually increased. As a sociologist, I know research shows that rest often does improve productivity. But somehow, I found it very difficult to actually internalize this in my own life; I was poisoned by that hypnotic belief, as Wayne Muller writes, that if I didn’t continually push myself, my work would tank and my children and I would be left penniless.

As I recovered from a nasty kidney infection and was treated for other chronic (stress-related) infections, I developed my own “sabbatical” plan. I can’t take a year off work, but I am trying to insert regular breaks into my life to rest, read—or just goof around. Here’s how it works:

Twice a year, I take a week-long vacation. A real vacation—not the kind where your in-laws come for the holidays and the kids are home from school. I’m a big fan of the totally-unplugged stay-cation, especially now that airline prices are getting so high. No matter where I go, I try to make sure it’s somewhere I can’t be contacted by email (this August, I’m going backpacking in the high Sierras!).

Once a month, I take a three-day weekend away from home. This might be an inexpensive camping trip, a meditation retreat, or a ski trip with the kids. (The beauty of living in California is that all of these are within driving range.) No work and no email allowed.

Once a week, usually on Sundays, I take a full day off from all work and all chores; this means at least one of my weekend days involves no work. No computers get turned on. If I need to cook or shop for the upcoming week (or run errands or pay bills: you get the idea), I do it on my non-sabbatical weekend day. Giving myself a full day of recovery to read and play every week is the hardest, but most important, part of this “sabbatical plan.”

Once a day, I stop to rest. Usually, after lunch I try to lay down and snooze for 20 minutes. This is super-hard for me to get myself to do, but when I do it, I’m always thankful I did.

My work is also cyclical. I post less over the summer and use that time to catch up on research. I stop giving speaking engagements for 6 weeks over the summer, and again over the holidays, so that I don’t get burned out. And even though it seems like all this rest might mean that I get less done, I know that when I stop taking these rests, I get stressed, and then sick. And illness (and healing) take precious time and energy I’d rather have for my work, my friends, and my family.

One of my readers wrote on the blog: “When you hear someone say that they feel like they’ve lost themselves, maybe what they mean (at least some of the time) is that they’ve lost their sense of play. We become too serious as we grow older, grabbing onto life like a little child squeezing a baby bird. As if holding it tightly and seriously enough means it will always be safe and forever be ours.”

Take your daily, weekly, monthly, and annual sabbaticals, and watch the baby bird in you fly!

Post a comment! What do you do to rest throughout the day, week, month and year?

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Previous Raising Happiness Posts about Rest:
No Labor Day
The Trouble With Motherhood
Tired Working Mother Sleep Saga
Is Sleep the Most Important Happiness Habit?
Podcast: Making Sleep a Priority

Greater Good Posts about Rest:
Just One Thing: Pet the Lizard 
Does Sleeping Well Make Us More Socially Adept?
How Well Do You Know Your Partner? 

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© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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