Why Relaxation Is The New Stress

url-1I don’t mean to brag, but I’m pretty good at relaxing. Take this weekend, for example. On Friday, I worked until 6 or 7, and then I made a homemade pizza and caught up on Breaking Bad episodes with my husband. On Saturday I did a little work in the morning and then started reading a new book of short stories. On Sunday I played board games with some friends, and then went cross-country skiing. See? That’s primo relaxation stuff. And little did I know when I performed this master class in Taking It Easy, I was also increasing my productivity!

Traditional workplace wisdom has it that work is work, and rest is rest. But that’s old hat. Today, the coolest offices have “nap rooms” and cutting-edge strategies to encourage playfulness on the job. You see, relaxation is good for you. And that means it’s not just something that comes naturally on the weekends and at night. Now it’s something you have to plan for and execute carefully to reach peak productivity. It’s the difference between burning calories tossing a frisbee at the park and putting in an hour on the elliptical.

The latest example of this wisdom comes from Tony Schwartz, CEO of a corporative productivity consultancy (I guess?*) called The Energy Project and author of a book called Be Excellent at Anything. Writing in the New York Times this weekend, Schwartz compiles the case for evidence-based relaxation: More sleep means better performance for basketball players, and employees who take more vacation time receive better performance reviews from supervisors. Daytime naps increase vigilance and reaction time for air traffic controllers. And so on.

Schwartz makes the argument for relaxation as only a truly Type A guy can do:

I’ve systematically built these principles into the way I write. For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.

Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance.

But as Hanna Rosin wisely writes in Slate, “nothing kills relaxation more than an oversized bold headline that reads ‘Relax!’”:

Telling people to strategically nap or do “daytime workouts” seems like a symptom of the same disease, because it just reinforces the notion that we humans are precision machines that must be kept in perfect order in order to operate efficiently. Find a way to relax, the Times story advises, so you can boost “productivity” and enhance your “job performance.” Even that most common directive: Recharge! Wasn’t that meant for batteries?


Those of us who enjoy work but aren’t obsessed with it don’t need a seven-point relaxation plan. So, sure, go ahead and relax. Heck, it’s good for you. But it shouldn’t feel like an assignment. It should feel like a break.


*The Energy Project’s website says things like “We train people to perform sustainably at the highest levels by more skillfully managing their energy across four dimensions: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual,” and so on, so I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine.

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