Many people out there will hear that the meaning of life is growth and think, “Well, then, I’ve gotta get to it!” A short time later, you’ve burnt yourself out. Don’t conflate growth and effort; let’s explore.
Everyone knows that to accomplish your goals in life, effort is required. Students study, employees and entrepreneurs work, and investors analyze their opportunities and invest. Despite popular belief, even managers, leaders, and the billionaires of the world put forth a lot of effort in the form of thinking, analysis, decisions, and actions.
Naturally, then, the belief is that the more effort you put forth, the more success you will find. Well, that is true. After all, body builders spend hours in the gym daily and entrepreneurs are hustling every day to get that next investor, sale, or opportunity. But there are limits to what effort can do, just like there are limits to what any one person can do. Sometimes, you need time for things to develop and your best option is just to wait for the situation to develop. But even beyond that, an essential component of growth is rest. Rest is what allows us to handle life’s setbacks, recover from stress and strain, and prepare us for more difficult challenges in the future.
The importance of rest comes from the natural cycle that advanced organisms began to develop. Life forms have three basic modes in relation to growth: seeking energy, consuming/digesting energy, and using that energy to build and maintain the organism for the future. In seeking more energy, they have to expend some. Sometimes, they have to expend a lot in the process of hunting, foraging, and fending off predators and competitors. When an organism is injured, it is best to stay still to allow the healing process to occur without additional harm. When an organism has expended its energy, it is important to remain still to allow digestion and growth/maintenance to occur. Hence, rest—such as sleep—is a natural part of life’s recovery process.
In addition to the core value of rest, sleep evolved as an effective mode of recovery not only for the body but also for the mind. Sleep initially evolved as an effective mechanism to recover during times where energy-seeking was not very rewarding. For example, bears hibernate because there’s not a lot of prey around in the snow and it requires more energy than it’s worth to keep them functional in the cold. Humans sleep at night because it’s dark and so it is both energy inefficient and dangerous to move around a lot a night. Thus, sleep evolved as an efficient means to recover from the day’s energy expending.
Most importantly for humans, sleep allows the brain to recover. REM sleep—aka, dreaming—is an example of the brain being able to process life events, memories, etc. in a way that allows it to be more effective in the future. The brain needs to maintain itself and prepare for future problems, so it goes through a very thorough process during sleep to maintain itself. So rest is important for the body and the brain.
So what happens when you neglect it to put forth more effort? Well, you can push yourself more and get more done, but that effort becomes less efficient. Research shows, for example, that productivity can be cut in about half for a typical 40-hour per week employee working 60 hours per week for several weeks in a row. Therefore, things like “crunch time” have costs in terms of putting forth more effort for output today in exchange for much lesser output tomorrow.
What’s the solution? Get rest. You might think that your “dig in and push through it” mentality might be benefitting you—and it does in the short run. In the long run, however, it makes you less motivated, less productive, and less likely to achieve your goal. So make sure that you get enough sleep, relax, and recover to optimize your performance and productivity in the long run.
Athletes and body builders know this because it’s common knowledge in that circle that muscle gains occur during rest, not during the workout. In fact, the workout breaks down the muscles; the rest rebuilds them. So people who want to reach their peak physical condition need to get enough rest to maximize their gains.
You should, too. You’ll be more productive, maximize any physical gains from manual exertion, and you’ll even give your brain time to process problems unconsciously and solve them before you return to them the next day. The importance of rest to the mind is just as high: it helps you think more clearly, lets you process thoughts, recovers your emotional state, and increases your skills and abilities.
So if you are pushing hard and feeling that you need to keep going past your body’s ability to exert itself in a healthy manner, remember that you’re sacrificing the easiest, most relaxing way to grow and improve for the hard, more difficult part of improvement that will see diminishing returns the more you do. In short, make sure that you get enough rest. Your well-being, health, growth, success, productivity, effectiveness, and sanity depend on it.