Seasonal Rhythms: What Our Ancestors Can Teach Us about Productivity, Rest, and Finding Balance

With a new year upon us, the conventional wisdom of our day is that it’s time to get to work getting after our goals. It’s easier than ever to get swept up in self-help and hustle culture, putting our noses to the grindstone and striving to become bigger, better, thinner, richer, more successful versions of ourselves.

Even if you’re not the type to make resolutions based on self-improvement, chances are you’ve set some goals to improve your work performance, whether your work is your home, your kids, your business or a regular job outside the home.

This time of year it’s easier than ever to get swept up in a hustle mindset and hit the ground running in January, so that by March we’re already exhausted and ready for a vacation.

No wonder so many New Year’s goals and resolutions fail.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

A Little History Lesson

New Year’s resolutions have historically been about moral and spiritual improvement, not about performance.

Granted, the practice of making New Year’s resolutions dates all the way back to ancient Babylonian times, when during a 12-day festival Babylonians would renew their allegiance to their king and make promises to repay old debts. But the Babylonian New Year occurred in the middle of March, when the world was waking up — not in the middle of winter, when everything is dormant.

The Romans get credit for starting the new year on January 1st. Their version of New Year’s resolutions involved making sacrifices to the god Janus and promising to improve their personal conduct in the coming year.

New Year’s resolutions didn’t really become a thing in Western culture until the 1700s, when Methodists led by John Wesley began a spiritual practice of spending New Year’s Eve looking back on past sins and repenting with a promise to do better in the future — much like the practice started in Rome nearly two thousand years earlier, but without the ritual sacrifice.

In any case, New Year’s resolutions have historically been about moral and spiritual improvement, not about performance. Performance- and self-improvement-based resolutions geared toward material success are a product of the Industrial Revolution, which is when the creation of indoor factory labor and handy innovations like electric lighting gave rise to the expectation that we work and remain highly productive year-round. And with today’s technology, we’re not only expected to be productive and constantly improving 365 days a year, but also at least 16 hours a day (we are allowed to sleep, at least), seven days a week.

But as recently as the late 19th century, people moved at a different pace than what we’ve become accustomed to in the intervening century.

Living and Working With the Seasons

Even the Puritans, whose work ethic we still hold up as the standard for our society, were better than we are at taking time off.

In agrarian societies, people tended to base their productivity patterns on the seasons. We can see this depicted in the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which depict a fictionalized account of her childhood as part of a Pioneer family.

In these books, while the New Year is a time of celebration, it’s not a time to set productivity or personal improvement goals. It’s simply a bright spot in the middle of the dark and cold winter, which is a time of dormancy and rest. There are still daily chores and responsibilities to tend to, but for the most part, it’s a time to pull back and recharge in between the fall harvest and spring planting seasons.

Those were the busy seasons — spring and fall. Spring is when all the plans would get made, when all of the hard work would be undertaken to prepare the fields and get the planting done that would, hopefully, feed them and their livestock for the rest of the year.

Summer was a somewhat slower season. There was still work to do to maintain the crops and to mow and gather the hay, but somewhere in between time was found to relax a bit and enjoy life — swimming in the local watering hole, attending church socials, Fourth of July celebrations, readying for state fairs, going fishing — before things ramped back up in the fall.

Fall, of course, was a time of harvest. Of reaping the fruits of all that spring labor. A flurry of activity and hard work, filling the food stores and shoring things up for another long winter.

Which brings us back to winter, and a short season of holiday celebrations leading into another long season of rest and recovery.

It wasn’t only the pioneers (real or fictionalized) who lived this way. Humanity has lived and worked according to a seasonal rhythm for thousands of years. Even the Puritans, whose work ethic we still hold up as the standard for our society, were better than we are at taking time off. Not only did they move with the seasons, but they also took every Sunday off, ceasing all work in observation of the Sabbath.

Of course, we need only to look at nature to see how important seasonal rhythms are to life. From animals that breed in the spring, frolic in the summer, hunt and gather in the fall and sleep through the winter, to trees who shed their leaves every fall in their descent to sleep only to come alive again in the spring, to the very ground that need to lie fallow and dormant for a season before it’s ready to once again push up and nourish the plants that sustain us, each season serves a purpose for every living being. It’s only we humans who think we can defy this natural order and come out the better for it.

But are we better off? Sure, we’ve made a lot of progress and technological advances, and I for one am certainly not complaining about things like modern medicine, indoor plumbing or air conditioning. But one look at statistics regarding heart disease, chronic illness and autoimmune disorders, anxiety and depression would suggest that perhaps defying the wisdom of the ages hasn’t worked out all that well for humanity.

What Could Seasonal Rhythms Look Like Today?

What if you could take off more than a few days around the holidays and get a real rest at the end of the year after all that hard work?

What if, instead of charging into this new year determined to attack your goals head on, striving to get more done with every waking hour… what if instead you resolved to slow down? What if you gave yourself permission to hibernate a little — or a lot — during these colder, darker months? What if you made deliberate, intentional plans to sleep a little more, to spend a little more time on evenings and weekends curled up with a book or binging your favorite show or just being with your people instead of chasing that side hustle?

Maybe you could factor the seasons into your goals and plans, letting spring, a time of renewal and new birth, be the time to start something new, to lay the groundwork for your projects — to start writing that book, recording that podcast, putting together that course, decluttering those closets, starting that new business?

And what if you planned it so that you could take a little time off in the summer to recharge your batteries and just enjoy your life before getting busy finalizing and launching that new thing you started in the spring?

What if you could take off more than a few days around the holidays and get a real rest at the end of the year after all that hard work?

Might you be less anxious, less exhausted, less stressed? More connected with yourself and your people? Might you even be healthier and happier?

Permission to Slow Down

This pattern of moving and working with the seasons has helped me get more done and avoid exhaustion and burnout.

It’s my belief that as human beings and not machines, we’re made to move with the seasons, and that doing so makes us healthier and happier. I don’t have any studies or statistics to back this up, only personal experience.

It’s been a year since I decided to try this experiment in my own life, and I’m happy to report that deliberately patterning my work and rest after the seasons has resulted in one of the least stressful, most restful, and also most creatively productive years of my life. As we head into this new year, I’m healthier and happier than I’ve ever been, better able to cope with anxiety and stress and far less prone to depression.

I’m being intentional to repeat the pattern this year. I’m working at a slower pace during these winter months, spending fewer hours on the computer and shutting it down while it’s still light outside. I’m getting to bed earlier and taking more time to think and process and to just be.

As the days grow longer and the weather grows warmer, I’ll extend my working hours and start fitting more into each day as I tackle new projects, set things in motion and do what’s needed in order to allow myself to slow down again in the summer — not as much as in the winter, but enough to take a break and recharge enough to get me through the rest of the year.

Then in late August I’ll take advantage of the collective creative energy that’s floating in the air as kids go back to school and parents get back to work, beginning a good 90 days or so of productivity before slowing things down for the holidays and a long winter’s rest.

So far, this pattern of moving and working with the seasons has helped me get more done and avoid exhaustion and burnout. I invite you to try it — even if that means just taking one thing off of your plate this winter. I know that’s not easy, especially when we’re bombarded with motivational messages to do more faster. But you can always add that thing back come spring.

It’s only 90 days till you can get busy again. Can you make it that long?

You can. If you need permission, here it is. And if you need a challenge, then I dare you to slow down this winter, and consider the seasons as you plan out the rest of your year.

Jean Marie Bauhaus is a multi-passionate freelance writer and occasional novelist who lives and writes in a house in the woods deep in the Ozarks. One of her passions is helping people slow down and make room in their lives for what matters most. She writes more on this topic in her free monthly faith-based newsletter, A Quiet Life.



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Jean Marie Bauhaus

Jean Marie Bauhaus

Multi-passionate freelance writer, blogger and occasional novelist. Homesteader, daydreamer and ADD survivor.