Stress and Rest

We all know that we should take breaks. Stressing your mind or your body to the point of complete exhaustion can be quite harmful, but not putting in enough effort to cause a little bit of strain on the mind or body won't help you improve. Note: when I refer to 'stress' in this article, I mean putting in sufficient effort to make a task difficult, e.g. I stress my body when I run; rather than the feeling you get when you're not working on something at that instant.

Training can be split into two parts: stress and rest. Each time you stress your body when you do a strenuous workout, it should be followed by rest, rather than more training that pushes you too hard. We should know that pushing our bodies too hard when exercising does more harm than good.

If you've looked at an exercise plan before, you'll usually see certain days marked as rest days. They're not meant to be rewards for getting that far; they're there to give your body time to heal and adjust.

The same goes for our minds. If we spend an hour doing mentally demanding work, we should take a small break, or else you'll start thinking slower and succumb to distractions, and so productivity will decrease. The amount and frequency of the breaks are dependent on the workload; reading fiction books or having a conversation with a family member is much easier than sitting through a tricky maths exam or playing a game of chess — the lighter workloads obviously needing less break time. In my case, I can easily read some books for many hours at a time, but some complex maths problems have me almost totally drained in less than an hour.

These stressors to the mind and body are one of the main reasons why we sleep. After using your mind and body throughout the day, it needs to rest to recharge, heal, and grow. This applies to both your muscles and your brain. When you learn something new, your memory doesn't properly get consolidated until you fall into REM sleep. If you get decent exercise in one day, your muscles become slightly weaker from damage, until you fall asleep and your muscles heal and grow. Alternating between stress and rest correctly is what causes you to learn better and build up your muscles.

This is the principle of stress and rest, and finding the optimal ratio between them will cause you to be able to learn more efficiently and get better results from exercise. Of course, finding the perfect ratio for you is probably near-impossible. So we want to try and find a healthy balance.

Listening to your body is a great way to do this. If you think you're pushing too hard and are finding a task much more demanding than usual, it's probably time to take a break or switch tasks completely. You may misinterpret your mind/body finding a task challenging and struggling with it, rather than your mind/body getting too fatigued to continue efficiently. Using your intuition is the best way to navigate this balance. If you build your intuition, then you'll know how to judge your limits better.

At the heart of it, the main point of this article is to make you realise the value of getting in regular breaks. You've probably heard that cramming the night before an exam is beneficial for your performance (given that it doesn't impact your sleep much). However, it fails to be an effective method for achieving longer-term retention of the learned skills and knowledge.

You may have heard that spaced repetition is one of the best methods of learning new things. Once you hear something for the first time and your subconscious mind doesn't think it is of much practical value, it won't remember it for very long, you may have forgotten it within 48 hours or so. Though if you hear it again, you'll likely be able to remember it for much longer this time, maybe a week or so. After you've probably forgotten it again, go over it again, and it'll stick for a month, and then three months, then a year, so on and so forth. The notion of stress and rest ties in with this method well. Many online language learning platforms use this principle to get people to remember everything they've learned so far.

For some practical advice, there are multiple systems you can use; it's all down to personal preference and the relative difficulty level of the task at hand. Taking a 5-10 minute break every hour for when you're learning new information or doing a mentally strenuous task is a decent strategy. Each break is likely going to be a better use of your time than ploughing through tasks for extended periods. As long as you don't get distracted with each break and can get back on track as soon as your allotted break time ends, it will be beneficial. For less mentally stimulating tasks, like reading a book or doing admin work, taking regular mental breaks is less necessary — perhaps consider a 20-minute break every three hours. There are still significant benefits of getting up every hour to stretch your legs and move around a little; it'll keep you much more alert. Sitting for extended periods is also quite bad for your body, you may have heard the phrase 'sitting is the new smoking' — sitting isn't as bad as smoking, though it still isn't great. Consider reading up about it.

For exercise, there is definitely no simple answer, as you're likely training different muscles at differing intensities. I'd say having a coach or personal trainer is probably the best way to go.

In either case, sleep is vital. Getting 30 minutes of extra shut-eye can often be more beneficial than putting in an additional 30 minutes of revising (that is if you're not currently getting enough sleep - oversleeping also has negative consequences).

With time, your capacity for stress and effectiveness of rest increase. If you put in hard work every day, you may find it easier to go longer periods without losing focus or productivity. You may even improve at getting better rest in the periods of rest that you get. With regards to your mind, not distracting yourself and just being present in each break can help you recover faster. For example, meditation is a great way to get the most out of any down-time. If you get distracted in a break, it may give your mind something to think about and get distracted by when you get back to work. Don't let that happen. Scrolling through social media or reading the news is one easy way to make it unnecessarily difficult to get back to the task at hand.

Realise where you're fighting the principle of stress and rest, and where you can use it to your advantage. It can be effortless to fall into the trap of getting too much rest, where your abilities start to decline, so keep that in mind.