Sophie Morris has been inflicting a modern-day Sabbath (a day of genuine rest) on her family. She can see the benefits - but also feels torn about a lack of productivity


I haven’t had a spiritual awakening; it’s always going to be Darwin’s evolution over Noah’s ark for me. And yet I’ve been trying to inflict – or should that be gift – a modern-day Sabbath on my family. Essentially this means no fixed plans and a day of genuine rest each weekend.

Increasingly, I was arriving on a Monday morning feeling the opposite of rested. I get less sleep at the weekend than in the week – I go to bed later and my child gets up earlier. I might have had “fun” (oh hi, mild hangover), but most likely haven’t done the things that appealed in my head, such as a walk or sauna with friends, or finishing a book. And the overflowing list of untouched domestic chores will niggle at me all week, the fact no-one else will give it a second thought compounding my annoyance.

What is a sabbath? It means a rest day – physically, mentally, emotionally. Health coach Sharon Olivero-Chapman, who studies centenarians, tells me that rest is one of the most important factors in longevity. “Centenarians have lived their entire lives prioritising rest days, not only from work but from everyday life. They have a unique ability to listen to their bodies, taking time out to relax and rest. It’s second nature to them.”

Psychotherapist Tasha Bailey says while the idea of a modern sabbath is new to her, she’s heard people call their rest days many things, such as self-care Saturday or Sunday, Soulday, Reset Day, or the Gen-Z term which has always sounded unsanitary to me, a Rot Day. “It’s a very good idea to give ourselves permission for at least one day in the week where your time is not consumed with responsibilities and social obligations,” says Bailey, author of Real Talk: Lessons from Therapy on Healing & Self-Love (Radar, £18.99). “It allows us to slow down and rest without carrying the guilt of not being more productive.”

I can certainly empathise with this kind of guilt. The twin evils of comparison and envy play their part, too. How can everyone else do so much over the weekend, without burning out? “Rest has a branding issue in society today,” says Hector Hughes, co-founder of digital detox escape Unplugged. “It’s almost synonymous with laziness. We need to reframe it as not giving up on life, but essential for turning up to life. When we rest we turn up better for both ourselves and those around us.”

My results, so far, have been mixed. My only rule for our sabbath is that we have no fixed plans. I also plan our rest days around other commitments as I don’t want my daughter to miss out. It’s never a case of, “We’re not free on Sundays”. There is an avalanche of chat about “setting boundaries” in the self-care arena, and while I have tried to be more honest and open with my own, I don’t think they’re an excuse to be selfish.

But, each time I wake up on one of my self-declared sabbaths – oh, glorious day of rest – I feel like a terrible failure. Here I am again, awake, and thinking about the opposite of rest. My mind might not jump immediately to work itself, as in money-earning work, but it will definitely fly directly to jobs on my to-do list and perch there stubbornly for far too long, mentally pecking at the three washes I need to put on, wondering if I’ve remembered to book the wraparound childcare, and considering whether, if I now stay in bed reading, a work-related book counts as rest.

“Our thoughts can really rev up the energy or the stress response in our body,” says neuropsychologist Dr Amber Johnston, who studies how our daily lives can affect mental health. “If we’re ruminating and constantly thinking about what we need to do next, if we’re not taking a psychological break, we will have the physical ramifications of that through our body.”

Thinking about the lengths others travel to secure genuine rest makes me feel better. If you go back to the religious origins of the sabbath, even the experts accept it’s not an easy task. Look at how Orthodox communities prepare for a full day of rest. The effort put in to secure what they consider rest is, well, a hell of a lot of work.

What’s more, the official day of rest is designed in many different ways. Take my Methodist Sunday school, for example. It was actually called “school”! On a Sunday! What’s restful about that for children who’ve been at school all week? No wonder I grew up with a confused sense of when and how to rest.

What is rest?

“I like to spend time with clients thinking about what rest is,” says Dr Johnston. “It is individual for everybody and not simply sitting down, feet up, watching TV. A lot of people will find that stressful, and complain it was a waste and they didn’t get anything back.”

Perhaps my problem then is expecting something back from how I spend my time, yoked to outcomes and achievement, instead of letting go? “When we’re thinking about restoration, which is about how we fill our cup, that should mean something different, something missing, from our usual day-to-day,” Dr Johnston explains. “A really important one is novelty, and another is purpose. These are things that really increase the sense of restoration.”

I began to realise that my experiment might work better if I took a weekday away from others to rest. I consider scheduling one a quarter. Businesses and productive types often block out time like this to reflect, analyse, and set goals. But for me the aim will be precisely to avoid these kinds of productivity traps.

“Having restoration time is just as important as sleep, nutrition and movement,” says positive psychology coach Casey Paul. “The modern ‘hustle culture’ societal trend glorifies and prioritises constant busyness, productivity, and work, with a belief that resting or taking breaks is a sign of laziness and lack of ambition.”

Take it slow

Although some sabbaths have left me feeling torn between rest and getting jobs done, others have been more successful. I appreciate that taking the same dog on the same walk isn’t something my daughter looks forward to, but instead of getting up early to exercise the dog before doing something with her, I decided to blend the two into one long and unhurried session as a restful activity.

The dog saw the beach. My daughter had as long as she wanted to choose a new spade. When it began to pour down, we ran through the park laughing and I convinced her we needed to stop for a coffee.

The following weekend we went shopping, with no time limits on how long we could spend looking at every single notepad in WHSmith. I’ve never been a fan of shopping in and of itself, but this turned out to be a lovely chunk of time spent together. I can’t remember the last time I browsed shops instead of dashing between them to buy essentials. In the third week of sabbath-setting, I scored an even bigger win: my husband and daughter devised some plans they didn’t think I’d fancy and disappeared together for the day.

If you don’t have a whole day, Paul suggests finding short breaks to rest and recharge. “The key is how these things make you feel,” she says. “Do you feel energised or depleted after doing them?” I consider what depletes me. Cultural stuff tends to fill my cup. Consumer-related activities are the opposite. This makes me think about my telly habit.

“Many of us assume that binge watching is a form of rest,” says Bailey. “But actually we can end up tiring ourselves out even more because of how much we are consuming through our senses.” Hughes points out that reading a book requires more concentration than watching television, and for that reason is better at calming the mind.

After a month of sabbaths, I’m certain I’ll carry on. But I still feel a bit awkward confessing to “not much” when asked about my weekend plans. “Guilt can often follow asking for rest,” says Bailey. “We can fear judgement or consequences for the time that we take for ourselves. But rest is not something we need to deserve or work for: it’s an absolute necessity for our well-being.”