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  • Nyla Khan

Four things I’ve discovered in pursuit of that elusive thing called “rest”

Sometimes it’s the jobs we’re most passionate about that burn us out, as Nyla Khan discovered early in her career. Nyla has worked for over 15 years helping businesses develop more sustainable solutions. Here, she shares four lessons on another, more personal type of sustainability: how to un-learn the “productivity mindset” and re-prioritize rest.

A woman's silhouette as she gazes into a purple sunset.

Let me start by saying that I’m writing this while sleep deprived, which only serves as proof that the journey to embrace rest is truly non-linear. I’ve conquered bigger things in life, and yet somehow this feels harder.

I’m not new to this. I’ve been experimenting with how to create more time for rest and recovery for some years, and believe it or not, I’ve come a long way. I’m a working mum to a 5-year old and have been part of the “rat-race” in demanding jobs, with long commutes and frequent international travel. Throw in a few other spices and that was the recipe for my burnout a few years ago: a painful, and yet game-changing, life experience that has certainly altered my trajectory for the better! I now work a four-day week, trust my intuition more than ever, and continue to experiment with how to live my best life while building in time for rest and recovery.

Here are four things I’ve learned so far:

1. We’re “stucker” than we realize. Unlearning the productivity mindset is hard.

Busyness is overrated, but still celebrated. When I was younger, I had a constant nagging feeling that life would pass me by and I wouldn’t have “achieved my potential.” Surrounded by people doing amazing things, with access to so many opportunities, I carried a kind of psychosocial stress about being “different,” knowing that I’d need to work much harder to catch up with others. It’s taken many years of looking inward and building self-confidence to realize that I am exactly where I need to be. I have found ways of tuning into my mind and body that help me let go of the FOMO that fuels all of the doing, doing, doing. I’m getting better at embracing “tiny moments of rest” in my everyday life, which feel nourishing and serve as a good reminder to stop, take a moment to breathe and reflect on what I need today.

Despite this progress, I still have a way to go. If I were presented with the gift of a few free hours, I’d still likely get more of a kick out of knocking a bunch of things off my to-do list, than simply resting. Will I ever truly break free from this habit? When it comes to stages of learning, I’m definitely at the point of Conscious Incompetence!

A graph charting "unconscious incompetence" to "conscious competence."

2. Rest matters even when I’m passionate about my work.

I’m privileged to spend my time at work serving a purpose I truly believe in. I’ve learned (the hard way) that being so passionate about what I do actually makes me more susceptible to burnout. Sometimes I work longer hours, because I care deeply about the work I do and the impact it can have on the world. The “lines” between work and personal motivators can be blurred when you’re doing purposeful work, so sustaining healthy boundaries to protect my sense of harmony has been really important.

I’ve learned that rest and recovery are both critical for me to truly engage in meaningful work. Whilst rest is the activity I engage in, recovery is the outcome I benefit from, but it’s not necessary that one follows the other. I’ve experimented with lots of different approaches before finding what truly works for me. Sometimes balance looks like doing some of my creative thinking for work while I’m working out, and other times it’s recognizing when I need to take a day to switch off completely and re-energize. I have weeks where I can spend more time being conscious of activities that support my wellbeing, including rest, being in nature and other things that nourish me and support recovery. Then there are other weeks that feel more productivity-focused. The sweet spot is when I can harmonize both in the same week.

A young woman in a meditation pose in dappled sunlight.

3. Changing my relationship to rest requires continuous exploration and deep reflection.

Like many people, I started out thinking of rest as mostly sleep, but I soon realized it’s much more than that. Its recovery too. I decided to seek out some more information to understand the impact different kinds of rest might have on my body and mind. At the same time, I found myself connecting it to a simple, and well-established, learning process that we use at MeaningSphere: Explore — Understand — Act (EUA).

Diagram with arrows showing the learning process from explore, to understand, to act, then back to explore.
Explore (E) - Understand (U) - Act (A), with a feedback loop that takes you back to E. This model was created by Robert Carkhuff, who led the revolution of the helping professions from theoretical to operational treatment in the late 1960s. He and his associates defined the effective ingredients of helping in operational terms. Image credit: MeaningSphere.

I’d been unconsciously applying this learning process on an everyday basis, in big and small ways. When I used it to reflect on my relationship with rest, I realized that despite going through each of the EUA steps, I hadn’t reached the outcome of recovery, or the changed behaviors I expected. I’d been thinking about rest in a fairly superficial way. I needed to go deeper to understand what would help me start dissolving my old habits.

Here’s what my learning process looked like:

  • Explore: I had plenty of information and data about the critical role of rest. I discovered some amazing authors, scientists and practitioners. It was at this time that I came across The Relaxed Woman, and her work on the 10 different types of rest. My mind was blown to learn there were even 10 types! Perhaps this was my opportunity to get below the surface a little, and understand the science behind rest?

I discovered that our bodies experience a type of physiological stress through mobilizing the same mind-body resources whether we are in fight/flight/freeze mode or in drive-achieve modes.* The stress we experience just manifests positively or negatively. Similarly, when learning new things at work, our bodies need more REM sleep to process all of the additional information our brains are engaging in. Quality sleep plays an important role in our ability to absorb, process and learn.

  • Understand: All of this fuelled a lot of reflection for me around my choices about the kinds of stressors I was exposing myself to daily. I might not have called the innovative and creative work I enjoy doing in startups “stressful” but I learned that it was still depleting my limited mind-body resources in a similar way to how negative stressors might. I needed to build in practices for rest and recovery to replenish my mind and body. This was a really powerful insight, and a reminder of my own agency to choose some of my conditions.

A woman in jogging gear on a boardwalk or pier doing exercise.

4. Learning in community can help sustain new habits

I find one of the most challenging parts of dissolving a habit is sustaining different and healthier habits. Through my experimentation, I discovered how powerful it was to learn something like this in community with others. It was a safe space and it felt powerful to have shared experiences, especially when things didn’t go as we wanted them to! I’m usually able to conquer most things I put my mind to, or at least make a decent dent in them, so I felt frustrated that I wasn’t making faster progress. It felt comforting to see that I wasn’t the only one.

Four women seen from the back linking arms.

This insight came from the next stage of my EUA learning process:

  • Act: I signed myself up for a course in Deep Rest with The Relaxed Woman. While the content and format were great, the most powerful experience for me was the ability to “think out loud” with 9 other participants as we learned, practiced and failed together, for the whole 10 weeks. This brought stimulating dialogues, camaraderie, accountability and fun to the experience. Each week I tried and learned new practices, or built upon previous ones, and each week I completed another EUA learning cycle and shared my progress, however big or small, with the cohort of other participants who were my accountability buddies. It really helped me progress to another level in my learning journey.

As I continue to implement what I’ve learned so far, I’m reminding myself that it’s okay to fail. That I can give myself grace while I do, and that I can have some fun as I struggle through it.

We’re all in this together. And with that…I bid you a restful day and a good night’s sleep!

*For more on this, see Lynch’s neuroregulatory model of socio-emotional functioning and Panksepp’s work on the SEEKING system. You might also like Sara Mednick’s work on rev mode and rest mode. Each of these models offer a different way to conceptualize “doing” mode (mobilizing and depleting resources) or “being” mode (restoring resources).


Nyla Khan leads strategic initiatives at MeaningSphere. She spends her work-life thinking about how to help individuals love what they do, and live a rich life, in integrity with what’s most important to them. She spent the first 15 years of her career helping businesses to build more sustainable solutions, before switching her focus to helping individuals make meaningful impact for themselves and others, through mindset and behavioral shifts. With a natural entrepreneurial bent, and a constant restlessness to solve human problems, she enjoys experimenting to find ways to improve the future of work. She lives in the historic English city of Oxford, and enjoys intuition painting, writing, hiking and exploring new places.

Image credits: Unsplash (first, third, and last photo); MeaningSphere (EUA illustration); Shutterstock (fourth photo).


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