The Surprising Truth About Rest, Recovery and Learning

These days, sleep is thought of as a “weakness” at best, and an affliction at worst.

The attentive skillhacker has proof of how important rest is, though. When I graph my progress, for example, I regularly notice the largest jumps after taking a very specific kind of break. Rest, when used properly, is a tool for growth… not a weakness.

There are three aspects to rest which provide the backbone for the perfect practice schedule. In each, I’ll explain how the idea improves the learning process and then how to use it effectively.



The first and most obvious function of rest is recovery. It seems to go without saying.

But sleep is a fascinating puzzle which the brightest scientists of our era have not quite yet pieced together. We know that sleep restores us both physically and mentally, and there seem to be different levels or phases of sleep. REM sleep is characterized by Rapid Eye Movement and is connected with dreaming, while the other (“deep”) phase of sleep is associated with muscular and physical rebuilding. Physical and mental: it can be helpful to think of learning in these two equally important terms.

The two support each other. When the body is in shape, the mind functions better. Keeping this in mind means pushing yourself in both a physical and a mental way each and every day. Only then are you experiencing everything learning has to offer.


Studies have shown that the very act of visualizing can reinforce and solidify knowledge.

Athletes have been using visualization for ages. Coaches will instruct players to picture the game they’re about to play, or executing some maneuver perfectly. It turns out, there’s good science to support the effectiveness of this. When you visualize, you actually trigger the same neural pathways as when you practice. More importantly, you can slow down time and get it right. Instead of being caught up in the moment, you’re able to execute everything perfectly because there’s no rush.

In This is your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains:

It was nearly impossible to tell from the data whether people were listening to or imagining music. The pattern of brain activity was virtually indistinguishable.

So next time you find yourself bored, try daydreaming. Let your mind think wander and think about what you’ve been learning. Maybe even play some air guitar (if you’re learning the guitar, as I am). Even the imagined practice may be good for you.

Associative Thinking

Creativity is all about finding connections between disparate ideas.

To be creative, your mind needs to be able to see these connections. Normally, adult humans use a type of “spotlight focus” which means that we’re intently focused on one little thing. This spotlight attention is great for getting a task done, but terrible for thinking divergently. It causes us to ignore ideas that we’re not concentrating on.

You’ve probably heard stories of smart people coming up with breakthrough ideas in the shower, while taking a walk, etc. These relaxing activities, which appear to have no purpose, actually serve to foster associative thinking. So, the next time you’re feeling stressed out or like you’ve hit a wall with your practice, do something relaxing.

Stress Management

When your body is stressed, things don’t work quite right.

When you get rid of stress, you allow the body to rebuild itself. There’s a curious thing that happens in athletics called “overtraining.” Athletes who spend too much time working out not only fail to improve, but they also have trouble sleeping as well as a myriad of other problems. What’s going on here? How can trying harder lead to worse results?

The stress hormones get in the way of normal body function. They cause us to gain weight, have health problems and generally not be at our best. Mindfulness practice (such as meditation) has been shown to help with stress management, but really any sort of activity that alleviates stress for you will do the trick.

Putting it Together

I’ve noticed something very surprising time and time again: most of my improvement at any skill happens between practice sessions.

This comes from knowing how to rest well. Meditating, sleeping well, going for walks and managing stress are all an important part of optimizing learning. So when you find yourself constructing a practice schedule, make sure to leave time for recovery.

This post has also been translated into Russian by Coffee health benefits.

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