Rest is Essential for Learning & Productivity

Are you getting enough sleep lately? Do you feel like your day includes enough breaks to rest when you’re working? If we’re being honest, many of us would likely answer no to these questions. According to Kelly Baron, many people’s sleep problems have worsened during the pandemic, and some have developed sleep issues they didn’t have before. Anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep, and stress can cause disturbed sleep, including strange dreams.

In addition, many of us are now balancing multiple responsibilities—such as teaching, research, parenting, homeschooling, etc.—that we wouldn’t be juggling in the same way under normal circumstances. This can keep us up into the night just trying to fit everything in. There is no one right way to live through a time like the one we are having now. So, even as we emphasize the importance of rest and encourage faculty and students to take breaks and get better sleep, we’d also like to acknowledge the reality that some have more opportunities for rest than others.

Teaching is demanding work. It requires time, attention, planning, and many different kinds of labor. It is difficult to do it well when you’re exhausted. Even when there isn’t a pandemic, faculty with competing responsibilities may feel tempted, or even obligated, to work all the time. Especially while teaching remotely, our work can expand to fill every available space in our lives, or bleed over into places that are normally reserved for relaxation or family. Although our current circumstances might make finding time for rest more challenging, it’s important for our health, and even for the quality of our work, to take breaks and to sleep.

When we think about being productive, or about being effective, we probably imagine a person who is actively working rather than resting. But rest is actually an essential part of working well. Breaks, including breaks to walk or exercise, make us more alert, help us focus, and help our motivation. They can help prevent decision fatigue and procrastination. They increase our productivity and even our creativity. And working too long without breaks can lead to burnout. We’re more able to treat ourselves and those around us—including our students—with patience and with kindness when we feel more rested and less frazzled. Our students need to learn about the relationship between breaks and working well, and about the importance of sleep, too.

Sleep helps us cope with the demands of being awake, and it is essential for learning. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard explains, “the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.” Students are also better able to use what they’ve learned—engaging in creative problem-solving, for example—when they’ve gotten enough sleep.

We can inform our students about the importance of rest and encourage them to take breaks when we give tips for success at the beginning of a semester, when we share effective study habits, and when we create the syllabus, schedule, or modules. We can build in opportunities for breaks or catch-up weeks. Depending on the discipline, some of us may even be able to include the topic of rest in the course content, assignments, or experiments.

We can also think about some important times for us to take breaks in our teaching: Grading and providing feedback certainly come to mind. If you have a large stack of papers to comment on, try working on them in batches of four or five with breaks in between. Or if you are grading exams that have a few open-ended questions each, try grading in batches of eight or ten. If you teach large classes, it might be helpful to take breaks when responding to student emails, especially if you start to feel exhausted or impatient. Just close the computer and take a walk or sit outside with a cup of tea instead. The emails will be there when you get back, and you’ll be better able to respond when you’re feeling refreshed.

If you would like support in encouraging students to develop effective study and work habits that include breaks and adequate sleep, please contact us at You can also sign up for a faculty reading group here. We look forward to working with you!