Naive T cells are actively maintained in a quiescent state that promotes their survival and persistence. On antigen stimulation, T cells exit quiescence to initiate clonal expansion and effector differentiation. Initial studies focused on the immune receptors and transcriptional regulators involved in T cell quiescence and activation, but recent findings highlight cell metabolism as a crucial regulator of these processes. Here we summarize these intrinsic metabolic programmes and also describe how cell-extrinsic factors, such as nutrients and regulatory T cells, directly and indirectly balance quiescence and activation programmes in conventional T cells. We propose that immunological cues and nutrients license and tune metabolic programmes and signalling networks that communicate in a bidirectional manner to promote quiescence exit. Understanding the programmes that regulate T cell quiescence will be key for developing novel approaches to modulate protective and pathological T cell responses in human diseases.