Have you ever found yourself in the early stages of a new friendship or relationship where you’re asking the age-old, interview-like get-to-know-you questions, when you get asked, “what do you like to do in your free time?” Do you, like me, feel the incredible, insatiable urge to over-embellish your evening activities? Do you want to follow along with my thought process as I try to understand why I feel the need to do this, and then hear some really great, maybe not 100% factually accurate self-help tips? Well, dear reader – this blog is for you!

When someone asks me what I enjoy doing with my evenings, I feel this almost insane need to have a long grocery list of evening accomplishments: 

“Well some days after work I’ll go out with my friends; maybe we’ll go for dinner, or go bowling. Sometimes we like to walk around the mall, or go downtown and watch the water light show at Petronas Towers. We might get ice cream, or go have a picnic at the park. And if I’m not with my friends, I usually like to go to the gym, then make some food. Afterwards, I’ll usually read a book or maybe watch a show, do some journaling, and clean up before bed.” 

This fantastically long catalogue of activities sounds so silly, especially when in reality, I’m so tired most evenings that I’ll grab some dinner from the local mamak on my walk home from the office, then take it easy for the rest of the evening. Why can’t it be enough for me that I woke up early, went to the gym, accomplished some solid tasks at work, went home, ate some food, and had a quiet evening alone?

In the past three months, I’ve had time to reflect on my concept of productivity. I’ve started to realize that my idea of productivity is strongly (and wrongly) tied to physical action. At some point, I began walking through life thinking that if I’m not doing some sort of actions or activities, I’m not being productive. 

I think that as students, we become so accustomed to juggling multiple balls at once: one ball represents going to class; another for studying, finishing assignments, and readings; one for spending time with friends; a ball for working a job or two; one for physical activities or sports; one for family obligations… you get the idea.  

I don’t know about you, but I personally wouldn’t call myself an expert juggler. In elementary school, I practiced at it for a few days. It’s actually a decently easy trick to learn, if you put in enough effort and have decent hand-eye coordination. I was eventually able to juggle three balls for a few seconds, but never more than three. 

I think that perhaps, the same idea can be applied to juggling the ‘life balls.’ It’s decently manageable to keep a few balls in the air for any period of time. But keeping track of 5 or 10 is a different battle. At some point, you begin working on autopilot, trying to prevent all of your different, competing responsibilities from falling. There’s no extra time in the day to stop and pause, so when you do take a break, it can feel like you’re not working towards your goals and like you’re being unproductive. 

Tying the idea of productivity into actions unintentionally leads to unproductivity. When you sacrifice taking a break over and over, for years and years, you burnout. It was a hard lesson to understand, and one which I wouldn’t have been able to learn if I hadn’t been taught that rest is productive. 

We now enter the much-anticipated, highly scholarly self-help section of this blog! Be welcome, and let the self-helping begin.

Last month, I was in a training session aimed at teaching students doing similar community-engaged work experiences techniques to help us adapt to working in community. It was during this session that I learned how deeply incorporated rest and productivity are with one another, and that you need to get different types of rest to maintain productivity.

Experts (aka bloggers on Google) argue there are five or six or sometimes seven types. But the idea is pretty much the same among all. I argue there are five different types of rest (the 6th being spiritual, which I am not, so I won’t try to tackle it). 

  1. Physical Rest

Probably the most obvious thing you think of when you hear the word “rest” is sleeping, which the google experts consider passive physical rest, but physical rest goes beyond that. It can also be done actively, through activities like yoga or stretching, or really any activity that restores the body. Personally, I try to stretch every day after the gym. I can’t say I love yoga, but I do strangely love laying on cold hardwood or tile floor, although it would be a stretch to try to call that yoga. The point here is to find your physical rest niche – and hey, maybe cold-floor-laying is yours too.   

  1. Mental Rest

Here’s a familiar scenario: it’s 3am, and you’ve been writing a paper for the last 14 hours, but you’re not even sure what you’re writing anymore, and you realize you’re still on the same paragraph that you were an hour ago. Sounds like you need mental rest! Go for a walk, disconnect for a bit. It’s also good to schedule studies and work in intervals with short between. This helps your brain rest. In writing this, I realize that I don’t actually do this very much – whoops. Lunchtime stretching may become my new thing if I feel like I’m lapsing into autopilot.

  1. Sensory Rest

Sensory rest involves taking a break from things that fry your senses: background noises; computer screens; your cellphone; bright lights in the office. Sensory resting aims to recharge senses that have been exposed to these things for long periods of time. I work in a busy office, so I like to come home and sit in the quiet for a little bit, especially on days when there’s lots of chatter and noise at work. 

  1. Creative Rest

If you’re feeling unusually uncreative and uninspired, you’ve likely burned through your creative energy. Things you can do to get creative rest include getting outside into nature: taking a walk, sitting at the park (a personal favourite), watching the ocean, or a thunderstorm, or staring at the sun (don’t actually do this, but you get the idea). Immerse yourself in and enjoy the inspiration that can come from being outside. Other ~experts~ mention engaging with a creative medium in a way that brings you joy, rather than to try to benefit from it. 

  1. Social Rest

Do you sometimes find yourself in the middle of social settings when you suddenly feel overwhelmingly exhausted? You’ve likely just burnt through your social battery for the day. There are different ways to handle this. Some people (introverts, unite!) simply need alone time to recharge. Others might gain energy from spending time with people who inspire them and make them feel good about themselves. While I consider myself an introvert, there are a few people in my life who fill my battery. 

The training session forced me to rethink my ideas of rest and productivity, and I began to see that the two could sometimes mean the same thing: to rest is to be productive.

Through this internship, I’ve been given an awesome opportunity to take a step away from my life and responsibilities in Canada. Right now, the only ‘balls’ I need to juggle are work and paying my rent and bills on time. Everything else – classes, studying, my jobs there, volunteering, sports, so on – has been taken off my plate. 

It’s strange to say, but I’ve been so busy with so many responsibilities for so long that I honestly have no idea what to do with my free time now. It’s unnerving to be so free. 

I think that might also be why when I’m asked what I do in my evenings, I have a knee-jerk reaction to list out different activities (even if I actually only do one of two). 

It took me some time to understand that maybe it’s actually a good thing that life is quiet right now. Being alone and away from all the action at home gives me time to check in with myself and work through things. I also have the time to relearn how to rest productively, and beyond that, how to engage with things that give me energy. 

Hopefully, gone are the days where I feel the need to have a long list of daily accomplishments. I’m learning it’s ok to rest.