You’re feeling a heavy, bone-deep weariness and staring glassily at a list that asks too much in too little time. You give yourself a five-minute Facebook break and then try to get back to work, but the motivation just isn’t there. You contemplate taking another break…but you just took one! What do you do?

I was in the same situation myself recently. After I got through the worst of it, I took some time to think about the relationships between rest and motivation – and how I could best use the former to somehow come up with the latter.

The insights that came to me were somewhat surprising. I’m sharing them with you now in the hopes that you’re inspired to think of rest and motivation in a new way.

1. Rest is not a reward for exhaustion.

Let me say that again – I wish I had it embroidered on a pillow. Rest is not a reward for exhaustion. Believing that I need to earn rest by depleting myself is like saying I’ve earned the right to put gas in my car because it’s running on fumes.

Rest is one of the most delicious pleasures in life, and I get to do it because I’m human, not because I worked long enough to deserve it. So let’s divorce the carrot-and-stick relationship of rest and work, subversive as that might sound.

2. Rest is more than fuel to power a life full of work.

Sometimes I think I’d be happy if I could just find the right schedule of little breaks to keep me going, but rest isn’t just a gas tank you have to fill up when it gets low. It’s also the oil changes, the preventative maintenance, even the cold months spent covered in the garage when the streets are full of corrosive salt.

Trying to work perpetually with only little breaks to recover is like being on one of those diets where you eat a few baby carrots every time you get hungry – it might keep you going for awhile, but it’s not balanced and it’s sure as hell not satisfying.

3. Little breaks are necessary when used in conjunction with longer periods of recovery.

Power naps are popular for a reason. Sometimes all you need is a few minutes away to return with renewed energy and motivation. I’ve found it’s a delicate balance of letting myself take breaks vs. making myself take breaks.

Sometimes I’ll be in the flow of a project and my timer goes off, so I take a break, only to come back and be unable to recapture my train of thought. And sometimes I’ll push myself to the point of audibly whimpering before I let myself have a breather.

I think the ideal point for me is that moment when my energy begins to lag and I find myself losing interest, but before I’ve hit rock bottom. I love this post by Cairene MacDonald about what we do when we ignore our signals to stop. It’s tricky because it takes an ongoing awareness of my state of mind, not something I can automate and forget about.

4. What I perceive as restful or a break doesn’t always feel that way.

(Facebook, I’m looking at you!). I’ve had to become more discerning about what activities actually nourish and restore me. Catching up on social media, reading politically- or socially-charged articles (especially the ones with a million angry comments, whyyy do I do that to myself?!), and reading long-form fiction (I can’t not binge-read novels) are things I’ve identified as Not Restful.

What works for me? Right now: lying on the floor, listening to music with my eyes closed, and taking walks. Sometimes light cleaning or chores if that feels like something good to do.

5. I don’t do good work when my thinking is fuzzy from overwhelm.

If my overworked mind is a snow-globe swirling with panicked, stressful thoughts and feelings, working harder/longer/faster is the equivalent of trying to get the snow to settle by shaking it more vigorously. The only way to see the little igloo or Empire State Building at the bottom is by setting it down and walking away.

6. A to-do list is supposed to support you, not shame you.

It’s supposed to be a tool, but when I make one during a period of depletion, it reads more like an accusation of everything I’m not working on. Besides, my ability to prioritize and plan isn’t at its best when I’m not thinking straight. Things seem to go much more smoothly when I can trust future, well-rested me to know what needs doing.

7. Don’t worry so much about feeling bored or overwhelmed.

I used to painstakingly plan my workload in order to avoid the extremes of boredom and overwhelm, constantly feeling like I had too much or too little to do.

When I remember that the experiences of being bored or overwhelmed aren’t anything to be afraid of, I don’t have to try to spend so much energy trying to avoid them. And when I stop trying to control or predict my experience, I have more access to the wisdom that knows what will actually work well for me in the moment. Structure and planning can provide support, but I have the freedom to ditch them when they’re not working – now, if only I could remember that!

8. Sometimes a lack of motivation can be useful.

One of the crazy things we coaches do is turn thoughts around  (“I should be more motivated” becomes “I should be unmotivated”) and try to find reasons why the opposite might be true.

When should I be unmotivated?

  • When I’m on the wrong path or need to make a change?
  • When I need rest?
  • When trying to be motivated feels abusive and violent towards myself?
  • When I’m trying to please someone else or measure up to cultural standards?

And you know what? After I came up with this list, I got so. much. done. Sometimes it’s more useful to examine the resistance than try to push through it.

So there you have it.

I realize these are less “action items” and more “things to keep in mind.” But do you really need another action item right now? Instead, pick one or two of these to plant in the back of your mind and see what they grow into – who knows? It could be a kinder, gentler relationship with yourself and your workload.

Photo credit: Mikael Altemark on Flickr

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