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Can You Get More Done by Resting Better?

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by Alec Palmerton, MD in Plan

Exhaustion is the fastest path to despair.

It’s the end of the day, and you’re drained from classes or clerkships. You’re on an endless treadmill of unsympathetic assignments, PowerPoints, and professors. You’re finally home; the last thing you want to do is study.

Your 30 minute breaks always extend themselves. You start to work, but your mind keeps wandering. It’s time to sleep, but you’re only partly done with a list that makes you more and more anxious. Dread and guilt haunt you. Sleep is restless.

Studying in med school can be exhausting. Endless exams, deadlines, and looming residency applications only make it harder. Rest may be the farthest thing from your mind.

Most of us treat rest like the enemy. When choosing between sleep and work, most of us grudgingly tackle our to-do’s. I’ve heard surgical residents boast about only sleeping 4 hours a night. We may “know” that taking breaks will help our productivity. However, what we know in theory never seems to translate to practice.

But what if rest is part of the solution to never getting things done? And instead of merely being the absence of work, what if rest were a skill? By practicing rest, we could accomplish more and feel better. We try so hard to make our studying “high yield.” But what if the quantity – and quality – of rest leads to the best outcomes?

In this article, you will learn:

  • Why rest is essential
  • How many famous people have used rest strategically
  • How to use rest strategically
  • The best ways to rest (and why binge-watching Netflix may not be as refreshing as you think), and
  • Much more

Table of Contents


What Was Darwin Doing All Day?

Charles Darwin may be the most famous scientist ever. What you probably didn’t know about him, though, was that he had an unyielding daily routine:

  • 7 a.m. Rose and took a short walk.
  • 7:45 a.m. Breakfast alone
  • 8–9:30 a.m. He worked in his study. “He considered this his best working time.”
  • 9:30–10:30 a.m. Letters/correspondence.
  • 10:30 a.m.–12 or 12:15 p.m. More work. By noon, he would say, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and was done for the day.
  • 12 noon Walk
  • 12:45 p.m. Lunch with the whole family (main meal of the day). Then read the newspaper and answered more letters/correspondence.
  • 3 p.m. Rested in his bedroom on the sofa, and smoked a cigarette, listened to a novel, or other light literature read by his wife.
  • 4 p.m. Walk, sometimes alone or with company.
  • 4:30–5:30 p.m. Worked in the study, clearing up matters of the day.
  • 6 p.m. Rested again in the bedroom with wife reading aloud.
  • 7.30 p.m. Light high tea while the family dined. If no guests were present, he played two games of backgammon with his wife, usually followed by reading to himself. His wife played the piano, followed by reading aloud.
  • 10 p.m. Left the drawing-room and usually in bed by 10:30
Why Did Darwin Stop Working at Noon?

What do you notice?

Darwin put in 3 solid hours of work a day and stopped by noon. He also spent hours taking walks, which for him was restorative and a way to spark creativity.

Had he not accomplished so much, it would be easy to write him off as lazy. But Darwin was as ambitious as he was routinized. He reportedly listed as a con to marriage “terrible loss of time.” Early in his career, he had pushed himself to work to the point of hospitalization.

However, what if his walks were part of his larger ambitions? In other words, what if he did the best work in the morning, but spent much of the day in active rest?

What Can We Learn About Rest?

The science of rest is a burgeoning field. However, there are interesting findings that may help us to discover more profound productivity.

1) Rest is Active

Think of your favorite hobby. How do you feel afterward? Exercising, taking a walk/hike, or deep conversations are effortful. However, rather than deplete us, this effort rejuvenates us.

On the surface, it seems odd that effortful activities could lead us to feel more refreshed. I always assumed that to rest, I needed simply not to work. The theory is that I have a pool of mental energy that is drained by any form of work. To refill the pool, I simply needed to stop working. The less I did, the more restful.

On that flawed theory, I’ve watched Netflix for hours, or slept late and lounged on beaches. I question now whether that was the best way to decompress.

If I’m honest, though, inactivity rarely led me to feel more energized. Rather, after binge-watching television, I often felt more sluggish.

Instead, to replenish our pool of energy, rather than be inactive, we simply need the right activity. Research suggests that deeply engaging forms of play are rejuvenating.

2) Schedule Your Rest

Many famous people throughout history took relaxation seriously. Winston Churchill took naps religiously, even during German bombings. So did Einstein, Napoleon, Thomas Edison, Ronald Reagan, Aristotle, and Margaret Thatcher. Watson and Crick also took long walks if they weren’t discussing the secrets of DNA over long meals at the pub.

Many of us use a break at the end of the day as a reward for hard work. However, what if we sprinkled our day with respites, as a way to restore us? Churchill’s valet observed that a mid-day nap gave him two working days where others had only one. John F Kennedy was so impressed with Churchill’s naps that he napped for 45 minutes after lunch. President Lyndon Johnson, too, took naps to achieve “two-shift days.” Like Churchill, naps allowed Johnson to achieve a second wind that he used to tackle more important tasks.

3) Rest Lets Us Get More Done in Less Time

Research suggests we may have only 3-4 hours of peak work every day. Knowing this allows us to plan our days differently. Willing ourselves to try and work after a long day of classes is likely fruitless; our 4 hours have been used!

Remember, though, four hours is a theoretical maximum. If rest is a skill, then we can use it to build towards our peak capacity. In this perspective, perhaps Darwin used long walks to get back to his 3-4 peak hours of work the next day. In other words, maybe without his long walks, he wouldn’t have been able to concentrate for as long?

How to Rest

It’s odd to think about learning how to rest. However, as research/experience suggest, different activities lead to varying amounts of rest.

According to research on rest, four factors contribute to recovery:

  • Relaxation: experiences shouldn’t be too hard. I find cooking rejuvenating, for example, in part because many tasks are things that don’t require much thought.
  • Control: we should decide how we spend our time/energy. Because my wife and I both cook, we often switch off who is making food. If I needed to cook every day – or had no choice of what I cooked – I’d find it much less refreshing.
  • Mastery experiences: “engaging, interesting things that you do well.’ This overlaps with the concept of flow. Flow is deep immersion in an activity – being “in the zone.” One of my favorite things to cook recently is fried food. I have to monitor the oil temperature, how the food looks, etc. To do so, I have to be fully engaged, and feel very refreshed afterward.
  • Mental detachment: don’t think about work outside of work. One of my favorite stories of Buddhist temples is that when you enter the gates, you leave your worldly cares behind. How different would you feel if you did the same thing symbolically when you walk through your door when you return home?

Here are ideas of what you can plan into your day to ensure peak productivity:


Walks through nature have been shown to improve attention. This is a central observation of attention restoration theory (ART). The idea behind ART is that spending time in nature improves the ability to concentrate.


Likely self-explanatory. You may have experienced the “high” of physical activity. Not only does it likely improve sleep, but it is restorative.


Of course, you know that sleep is essential. But are you doing it? And are you using it to maximum effect? Most people sleep because of exhaustion. However, see how much more you can do if you tackle your work well-rested.


Ever had a planned mid-day nap (not just because of exhaustion)? Like President Johnson, JFK, or Churchill, experiment and see what happens when you catch a mid-day snooze. What happens to your productivity afterward – can you get two work days in one?

Deep Play/Flow

Think of a favorite hobby. How do you feel afterward? Board games, cooking, dancing, even washing the dishes has produced flow. Build these into your day and observe your concentration/productivity later.

Concluding Thoughts

They say, “common sense isn’t common practice.” We may know our studying isn’t productive. Our concentration flags, we end up on Facebook. However, what we know in theory often doesn’t translate into practice.

How often have you:

  • Thought, “I fell short by four hours yesterday, so I need to work an extra four today”?
  • Pushed off sleep to get left-over things done?
  • Measured productivity by the number of hours rather than the quality of studying?
  • Deprived yourself of restorative hobbies because “that’s what med students do”?

Much of med schools’ attempts to improve wellness have the right intentions. However, they don’t go far enough. It’s too easy to write off advice to try meditation or exercise because “who has time for that?”

Instead, wellness is a method to improve productivity. If an Olympic athlete had your self-care habits, how would they perform? If the answer is, “poorly,” then you could improve your studying a great deal with rest.

I slept for 8 hours, almost every night in med school. I exercised intermittently, although, in retrospect, I wish I had done more. Because of my interest in meditation, I even started a class on mindfulness at Stanford.

Like everything, don’t accept everything at face value! The beautiful thing about rest being active and leading to better productivity? It’s a testable hypothesis. Try different forms of rest during your day, and measure what you accomplish. It may be the most productive – and enjoyable – experiment you do!

How do you rest? What are your views on rest and productivity? Let us know in the comments!

Further Reading:

For a great account of rest, check out Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

Want FREE Cardiology Flashcards?

Cardiology is key for impressive USMLE scores. Master cardiology from a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who scored USMLE 270 with these 130+ high-yield flash cards. You’ll be begging for cardio questions - even if vitals make you queasy.