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Rest vs. Rejuvenation: Why Doing Nothing Doesn't Leave You Refreshed + What To Try Instead

Katina Bajaj
Author:
January 3, 2023
Katina Bajaj
Master's in Clinical Psychology
By Katina Bajaj
Master's in Clinical Psychology
Katina is the co-founder of Daydreamers, a clinical psychologist researcher and expert on creative flow. She is a published well-being author and has been featured in Fast Company, Teen Vogue + others.
Image by Nicola Suttle / Stocksy
January 3, 2023
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As the new year begins, it can feel like you need to operate at full speed. Your top priorities seem like a never-ending list: All the decisions you paused before the holidays are back on your plate, and now, there's an added expectation to tackle new goals with just as much energy. Even more, there's an unstated pressure to create a fully improved version of yourself—as soon as possible.

Exhausting, right?

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If you're already drained by just the thought of what's to come, much less how you might begin to achieve it, you're not alone. The majority of adults in the U.S., nearly 60%, experience stress every single day, and we're seeing some of the highest levels of burnout in recent history. It's no surprise that we want to spend our free time, whatever that means, doing nothing. Feeling exhausted doesn't just stop us from getting more done; it can also lead to a sense of cynicism, purposelessness, and languishing that negatively impacts all areas of our lives.

As a clinical psychology researcher and co-founder of a mental well-being company, I regularly see the impact of our productivity-obsessed, achievement-driven culture on mental health. And, while it sounds counterintuitive, this type of overwhelming exhaustion isn't necessarily fixed by sleeping or lounging around. From a scientific point of view, rejuvenation—not rest—is the foundation of fighting burnout.

Rest vs. rejuvenation: What's the difference?

That's right, rest and rejuvenation aren't the same. While the definition can be nuanced, rest generally refers to a passive state (sleep, lounging, and so on). Whereas rejuvenation is a state of feeling1 renewed, restored, and ready to start fresh. Rejuvenation allows our brain to take a break as we repair and rejuvenate our emotional perspective.

For the most part, we're taught to cope with burnout by doing the former: stopping everything to focus on rest. While I'm a huge proponent of making room to zone out and daydream more often2, I can tell you that taking a full-on break won't necessarily leave you feeling refreshed.

Try this: Think about the last time you felt fully alive. Were you relaxing on your couch (while, let's be honest, simultaneously scrolling on your phone) or doing something that allowed you to feel connected to the beauty, wonder, and awe of being human?

If your answer lands closer to the latter, you've felt the power of something called "autotelic experiences3." Autotelic experiences, according to scientific literature, are moments or behaviors when we do something for its own sake rather than achieving an external goal down the line. It happens when we're intrinsically motivated and driven by our innate curiosity. Most importantly, they are rooted in enjoyment and lead to a sense of rejuvenation.

The benefits of effortful downtime.

While rest helps us slow down and recalibrate, rejuvenating, autotelic experiences help us feel restored and open to new ways of seeing the world. They are at the basis of feeling fulfilled, purposeful, and connected to something larger than ourselves4.

That's because autotelic experiences don't happen while churning through another item on our To Do list, or even using our free time to start a creative side hustle. And, even more importantly, they aren't something we can only do while on vacation or climbing to the top of a mountain. In fact, they happen most often when we are in creative flow (more on what that means here).

Enjoyable, autotelic experiences not only help us feel energized by what's possible but cultivate the drive to turn it into reality.

Now, I know that taking time to do something you enjoy can feel frivolous (and even impossible) these days. We are constantly forced to optimize all hours—and, when we're not striving for continuous achievement, our brain feels too drained to do much of anything other than watch a deluge of videos.

But what if I told you that making time for "effortful enjoyment" can not only help us feel better but may also be one of the most productive ways to spend our time? That's because it allows us to reframe the way we look at our hectic schedules. One study published in 20125 found that university students who helped edit at-risk high school students' essays for 15 minutes reported having more free time than those who were given permission to leave 15 minutes early. For these students, spending more time on a fulfilling activity helped them feel like their time was more abundant.

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How to make rejuvenating activities part of your well-being practice.

By beginning to separate our mental well-being into both rest and rejuvenation, we can make conscious decisions about how to effectively spend our time—and most importantly, expand it. Here's how you might begin to experiment with incorporating autotelic moments of flow into your daily life:

1.

Start small.

Unlike what we're often taught, creativity and enjoyable experiences don't have to last that long to have an impact. From a scientific view, it's more important to engage in shorter, more frequent practices than longer ones you try every so often. For example, rather than spending an entire afternoon painting, try keeping a notepad at your desk to doodle in between meetings.

At Daydreamers—where we're on a mission to get our creative spark back—our members build creative habits into something they practice for about 15 minutes a day, at least four times a week. It doesn't seem like much, but we know that it only takes about 15 minutes to get into a flow state, and its impact can last over 24 hours on your mood. Talk about impactful!

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2.

Reframe enjoyment.

Enjoyment is different from pleasure. In a dopamine-driven world, we seek out quick moments of pleasure, like checking social media or taking a bite of chocolate at lunch. Making space for enjoyment requires more effort—but it's well worth it.

Think about how it feels when you lace up your sneakers before a workout; our mental health practices need a similar amount of preparation. I call it "sweating for your brain," but Harvard social scientist Arthur Brooks, Ph.D., describes the difference as such in the Atlantic: "Pleasure happens to you; enjoyment is something that you create through your own effort. Pleasure is addictive and animal; enjoyment is elective and human."

3.

Focus on flow when you need forward momentum.

Flow happens when we immerse ourselves fully in the present moment. And lately, it's been at the center of many boundary-pushing pieces of research in the mental well-being space6. Creative flow drives a new way of seeing the world and is at the center of change.

We see the most impact of flow-based well-being practices when our members incorporate them into transition times of their day, to help them shift them into a new perspective. For example, you could prioritize rejuvenating activities when winding down from intense, linear thinking at work, into a more relaxed evening routine. At its core, creative rejuvenation is a powerful way to change your mood.

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The takeaway.

To feel more alive, more human, it's important for us to remember that rejuvenation isn't another thing to achieve on your to-do list. But, when we do follow our innate curiosity and drive for enjoyment, our entire world can expand.

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Katina Bajaj
Katina Bajaj
Master's in Clinical Psychology

Katina Bajaj is the co-founder and Chief Well-being Officer of Daydreamers. After getting off the burnout cycle, she became fascinated by the power of creativity to improve our overall well-being. Katina is a published well-being author (Simon & Schuster), a certified coach meditation teacher, and has a Master's in Clinical Psychology from Columbia's Mind-Body Institute. Her work on creative well-being has been featured in publications like Teen Vogue and Fast Company, and she has amassed a following of nearly 100k globally.