From economic growth to personal growth, it is easy to get the impression that if things are not growing they are stagnating. But this is far from true.
Sometimes, instead of growth, we need time to rest and restore.
When we are in a state of growth, there are clear signs of movement and progress. Change is happening, and everyone can see it. This state can be addictive. It feels great to be producing new things, ticking off items on our to-do lists, and making steps toward big goals.
However, if we are in this state constantly, it may come at a cost. For me, juggling a family, work, and study led to physical and emotional problems. I ended up with an autoimmune disease and an anxiety disorder. But being physically unwell forced me to take stock of my life and adjust my priorities.
I discovered that finding a balance between productivity and more restorative activities changed my outlook on life and eased both my physical and emotional symptoms. It was a long road with many setbacks, and I still struggle to find that balance at times.
But through this process, I began to wonder why our society is so obsessed with growth.Here are some of the answers I came up with.
1. Religious Legacy
The idea that we should be in a state of constant growth may have a religious origin. Many religions attach value to hard work, thrift, and efficiency. From a puritanical, Protestant perspective, worldly success was interpreted as a sign of God’s approval and an indication of eternal salvation. Therefore, the busy and successful believed they had a secure place in heaven waiting for them.
Perhaps this legacy is why we in the West feel so much guilt at taking a week, or even an afternoon off.
2. Work Competition and Pressure
The competition we feel in an unstable economy also contributes to the feeling that we must work hard all of the time. We fear that being unproductive could lead to others getting ahead of us, or that we might slip down the ladder of success we have worked so hard to climb.
However, if we can understand that actually, we will do better in life if we have more balance, we can begin to reconcile the idea of coming out of the growth cycle for a while. When we begin to see benefits of downtime such as a clearer mind, more energy, better health and fitness, and less anxiety and impatience, we might begin to value our leisure a bit more.
Many studies have concluded that constant work is actually inefficient. The more tired we get, the less productive we are, and the more mistakes we are likely to make.
Being exhausted is simply not good for our health, productivity, or relationships.
In addition, when we are constantly taking in new information, we do not have time to really make it part of who we are. Without a consolidation process, many of our ideas and skills never become fully integrated. New ideas and information need to be digested, like food, before they can be put to use.
It can also help us to consider whom our busyness is serving. Are we busy because we are trying to impress others, or because we don’t feel good enough? Perhaps we are simply afraid to be alone with our thoughts and fears. Thinking about the reasons for our busyness can help us to step out of autopilot and choose our tasks with more intention.
Personally, not feeling good enough was one of the main reasons I pushed myself into constant busyness and productivity. My lack of self-belief led to me always striving to be more and do more.
Learning to accept myself with all my weaknesses and flaws was a major step on the road back to balance. I felt huge relief when I realized that I didn’t have to do it all anymore. When I accepted that I have a right to simply be here on this earth and that I did not have to justify my existence, things started to change for me.
Choosing not to participate in constant progress can be hard.
There will still be changes going on, but they will be less obvious. It can be easy to feel that nothing is happening, that we are stagnating. Feelings of guilt can also arise when we pause. We may feel that we are not doing enough or that we are not good enough if we are not constantly growing and improving. We may also fear what others think of our apparent inactivity.
However, being in a less growth-focused stage of our cycle can involve real, beneficial changes. There are other states that are equally important to our health, well-being, and progress.
Sometimes, what is needed is a period of both consolidation or healing. From time to time, we need to go inward and work on things that are hidden from the light of day. On other occasions, we just need to rest.
If just hearing the words of that last sentence makes you long for an afternoon nap or a day off, then your body and soul are probably telling you that it would be a good for you to take a break from growth in your life right now. It can be hard to quieten the clamoring voice in our heads that tells us we must be doing, producing, learning, and growing every second of every day.
But beneath that voice, there may be a softer voice telling us what we really need.
For me, simple activities such as being in nature and re-discovering the joy of losing myself in a wonderful novel were important steps. Learning to accept myself and not feel guilty for taking time out for activities that would restore my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy was key.
I also found much inspiration in considering the cycles of nature. Growth is often just a season rather than a state to be in perpetually. A mother oak shades her seedlings from the sun. She knows that too much growth at the wrong time can produce weak, spindly seedlings that will not be strong enough to weather storms. And she herself takes a period to rest to consolidate her growth during the winter, when she sheds her leaves—which makes her stronger, too.
In pre-industrial times, human beings would have more closely followed the natural cycles of nature. Before gas or electric lighting, little productivity would have been possible in the long, dark, winter evenings. These would naturally have become times to rest and restore, to conserve energy and keep warm inside. Activities such as storytelling, singing, lovemaking, and sleeping would have lulled us through winter at a gentle pace.
Many religions also recognize the essential nature of rest, even setting aside days for it like the Sabbath. In many cultures, women would have rested during their menstrual cycles, too. And after childbirth, a period of much-needed rest would have been part of the cycle of motherhood.
Yet in our culture now, rest seems to be a synonym for lazy. We boast about our busyness as if it proves our worth. These days, many of us don’t even get enough sleep for our bodies to carry out essential repairs.
This is truly an unhealthy and uninspiring way to live.
How to balance time growth and regeneration
To counter this, we must make time for rest and regeneration, for integration and consolidation, for relaxing, being joyful, and having fun.
We can start small. Simple pleasures such as spending time in nature or watching clouds allow us to rest and restore. Looking within through journaling or meditating can also help the consolidation process. We must establish deep roots that can tap into a flow of nourishment and support us through good times and more difficult ones.
Everyone’s ideas of regenerative activities are different. For some, it might be bungee jumping or white water rafting; for others, meditating in a Zen garden would suit better.
The best way to proceed might be to try a few new things out and make a note of how you feel during and after the activity—or non-activity. Alternatively, take a look back at what you loved to do before you became so busy and stressed. You may have to go back as far as childhood if you haven’t been honoring your inner self for a while. If you have lost touch with your inner self, try to rebuild that connection by returning to those things you used to love.
Either way, you will soon get a feel for the things that truly leave you feeling restored and recharged. And if all you can manage for the moment is to binge watch your favorite TV program, then do that—and without feeling guilty.
What to do if you’ve let things go too far
If we are productive, stressed, and busy for too long, our bodies may eventually force us to take a break. When it happens this way, healing will likely take some time. If you have been feeling down or depressed for a while, you might need to get some professional help.
But in the meantime, don’t try to force yourself back into the growth mode of constant productivity. Follow the advice above in choosing activities that will restore you. Take things slowly and allow your own body, mind, and spirit to guide you.
Remind yourself that you are not a machine. It is time to take a break from the growth cycle and go deep inside for a little while. Spring and growth will come back in their own sweet time.
This post was originally published in elephant journal