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  • Ali Boston

Why rest matters for meaningful work: A conversation with MeaningSphere Guide Lilian Kolker

Summer is a time for vacations, long days and a chance for reflection before the busyness of the Fall. As we explore the idea of “rest,” we spoke to MeaningSphere Guide Lilian Kolker about why rest is important for meaningful work. Our conversation spanned the balance between “being” and “doing,” creativity, and questions you can ask yourself to better understand your own relationship with rest.

Young woman reading in the park.

Ali Boston: Why is rest relevant for meaningful work?

Lilian Kolker: When we talk about what’s meaningful at work, we often talk about these two states of being and doing. “Doing” is when we’re in action mode, completing the work that matters to us. “Being” is when we step back and allow time for reflection. I see the word rest as a part of "being."

You can’t rest without having had some action, and you can’t act without having had some rest. So there’s a tension between these two states. But you need to have both of them because both are very important for finding meaning and creating meaningful experiences.

Work is all about how happy we become from getting our tasks done, helping someone, or making progress and achieving something. But we also feel well when we take a break to look back at what we experienced and achieved: when we get our head around what happened, or when we realize we learned something during the day. We can experience meaningfulness in both action and reflection, and we need them both. However, I think you cannot be in both states at exactly the same time; we need to balance them.

Man stretching on a deck.

Ali: That makes a lot of sense. So what you’re saying is it can be hard to understand what’s meaningful to you when you’re constantly in doing mode – sometimes you need time to step back, pause and think about what is or isn’t working?

Lilian: Exactly. One of the main things we try to do at MeaningSphere is invite our visitors on the platform to take time to pause and reflect. We’re asking them to be in this "rest" mode and take time to explore where they are and how they feel about their work experiences. We support them to find what’s important to them, before they get back into “doing” again.

For most people, that isn’t easy. What I often come across when I work with teams in organizations is that people feel that they’re not paid for resting and reflection. They have the feeling they have to “do, do, do.” Sitting somewhere to think or going outside to take a walk, to relax and give your brain some rest and to allow in new ideas – it feels like we're not paid for that. We do that often outside of work, we have this urge to produce something. It's actually quite hard in an organizational or business environment to allow yourself or others time to rest, just to visibly do nothing for a while.

It’s super important to take time to pause and think during the day, taking breaks in all this doing. The ideas come when we give ourselves some rest. When I was on vacation last summer, I read a book that talked about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This quantum physics principle states that the more precise you are about the location of a particle, the less effective you are in measuring its speed or direction. That made me think about being and doing, as kind of the same thing: it’s not effective to try to rest while you’re busy moving forward at the same time. Then it’s less effective. To understand what’s going on for you or choose a direction you want to go in, you need to stop, spend some time in one place, looking around and experience what is happening to you: get clear about what your feelings and experiences really mean to you.

Woman's profile in close-up as she floats in a pool.

Ali: We often see the summer, when many of us take a longer vacation, as a moment for this reflection time and the chance to step back from our day-to-day lives. But would you say that at MeaningSphere, part of what we’re trying to do is help people carve out small pockets of their days or week to have that moment of rest and chance for reflection on a more regular basis?

Lilian: Yes, I believe that's what’s we’re promoting and trying to support happening, actually. During a guided discussion, you sit down and invite the other person to think and talk for almost an hour. And you talk about what’s happening to you and what happened in situation “a” and what happens in situation “b” and how is that related or unrelated? What’s influencing you in your surroundings, in your work with other people, and in yourself? So to look within, you need to stand still or sit still or take a breath and be present. It’s difficult because many people are in the “do, do, do” mode and we are asking them to do the opposite.

Ali: It reminds me a lot of creativity – how it’s often in these moments of rest, when you step back and do something else that you have a revelation or “a-ha” moment about a problem you were working on.

Lilian: Yes, sense-making can be like what you're saying about creativity. It’s that state of mind where you let go and let your unconscious work and see what you come up with. I feel it's the same with play. When you get into this state of playfulness, you’re relaxed and open and that’s often when ideas come to you. We can create different states for ourselves to allow new thoughts and ideas to pop up. I think that's also why for many people, the ideas come when you are in the shower, for example.

Ali: And how about yourself? Would you say that you're good at resting? Is there anything that you consciously tried to do to enable or protect this kind of rest time for yourself?

Man relaxing in hammock in a forest.

Lilian: To be honest, I very much had to learn this. It took me a while to realize that rest brought me better ideas than going on resiliently. I became better at it when we lived in the mountains for a few years. Our lock-up during Covid was also helpful to become better at being with myself or go out in nature on my bike or take a quiet moment. I know now that some rest will help me find other ideas than during a “do, do, do” mode.

But there's also an opposite side of too much being. If there's too much being then you can become passive, or you get restless, or you can spend too much time dwelling on your thoughts and problems. So I learned to be more aware of the need for balance between “being” and “doing.” That’s what’s important to learn.

Ali: What are some questions you would recommend that people reflect on to think about their relationship with rest?

Lilian: I would recommend an experiment to try taking some time to stand or sit still and do nothing. A colleague of mine calls that "looking at the wind." See how long you can manage to do nothing, not grabbing your phone. Just be, let your mind wander, and see what comes up. Connect with yourself. Ask: where am I? Give it time and let your thoughts emerge.

Are you able to sit still and be with yourself? If you struggle with resting, ask yourself why. Sometimes it can be scary to confront this and it feels so much easier and more comfortable to distract yourself or keep “doing.”

Or, describe what rest means to you. What gives you peace of mind or renews your energy? The better you know how to find rest, the easier it might be to give in to it for a while.


Lilian Kolker is a MeaningSphere Guide based in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Ali Boston writes about the worlds of work and technology (fictional and non-fictional). She began her career in communications, before going back to university to study for a Master’s in Politics and Technology. Since then, she’s been working on projects that help realize an inclusive and sustainable future of work. She lives in the Italian mountains with her fiancé, and loves cross-country skiing and stand-up paddling (neither of which she is proficient in).

Our monthly thought-starters come to you from our team of Guides, who are trained to help you make the most of your MeaningSphere experience. They're on hand to help members of our community explore the big question: "What is the meaning of my work to me?" Find out more about our Guide services here.

Image credit: Unsplash ,Shutterstock


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