There are some setbacks in life where the best thing you can do is rest and try again later. There are others where you should immediately jump back into action. The challenge is knowing the difference.

When you get injured during a physical activity, it’s usually best to rest and recover; pushing through the injury could make it worse. You’d rather lose the game and try again later than compromise your long-term ability to play. But if you’re hiking Mount Washington in winter, resting too long could be fatal. 

What if you put $100 in the stock market and its value goes down to $50? Should you get out of the market, rest for a while, and think about investing again sometime later, when the sting of the loss has subsided? Resting here doesn’t help, it hurts. If you can invest another $100, do it immediately, and you’ll be better off in the end, assuming this is a long-term diversified investment and yada yada.

When you get into an argument with someone, you might want to keep going and sort it all out, but you should probably rest and let tempers cool down. Disagreements often reach a point where “staying in action” only makes things worse.

But what if you’ve been struggling to write a paragraph and the setback is procrastination? Should you step away and return to it later, or write the next sentence immediately? Often it helps to take a break from a difficult task and return with a fresh mind. But the idea of “taking a break” to regain mental freshness can become a justification for avoiding simple things we can do easily and immediately to move a project forward. If that next sentence has formed in your mind, write it down before the break.

What if you’re practicing meditation and your mind continues to wander uncontrollably? Should you take a rest from meditation? Or should you immediately jump back into the “action” of meditation, which means returning your attention to your breathing, your mantra, or other point of focus? In this case, jumping back into action – returning your attention to breathing – is precisely what meditation’s about, so you should take that option whenever you can. Noticing that your mind has wandered is not a reason to give up; rather, it’s a gift that helps you keep practicing.

What if you’re trying to take a positive view of a situation but you find your thoughts growing negative, again and again? Should you take a break from attempted optimism and leave it for later? Yes, there is such a thing called “toxic positivity” and it’s not good. But the mere fact of having had ten, fifty, a thousand negative thoughts about a situation is not a reason to reject a positive thought if one makes itself available. Don’t aim to be consistent with past negativity. Those negative thoughts are probably what’s making you tired, so when a positive thought comes along, try accepting it immediately, without first “taking a rest.” Maybe it’ll work. ■

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