Do you really know how to stop?

Do you get enough downtime? Downtime is time that is just for you where you don’t have to be doing anything, planning anything, talking to anyone or smiling and nodding. Downtime is that delicious moment when the house is clean and quiet, the kids are napping or at school, it’s too early to start dinner, and nothing good is on TV. Downtime is Sunday morning after you’ve showered and your wife hasn’t planned anything with the neighbors or the in-laws or her cousin from Malaysia that’s only here for a week. Many of us dedicate a few days to downtime every year, and we call it vacation. During vacation, we either board a plane or renovate our houses, meet old friends and family or explore our own city. Very few of us use our vacation days to just relax. Downtime is a concept that can be tough for us, because it may lead to feelings of being lazy or unproductive in a society where being busy, flustered and over-booked is considered normal. By following just a few straight-forward steps, you can incorporate downtime into your daily life.

1. Create Space for Downtime

The first thing to do if you want more downtime in your life is to let yourself want it. This will be hard for those of you who like to keep busy, as you will think you are wasting your time. When researchers compare the health and happiness of busy people to those who know how to relax, the results are humbling. Guess who is happier and lives longer? And if you don’t make downtime important, your body will by catching a flu, manifesting an illness, or getting in an accident. If you don’t learn to stop every so often, your body will make you! Once you acknowledge that you actually want and need it, then you will be motivated to make space in your life for it. How do you do this? Schedule it! Just as you would make space in your day for lunch with an old friend or to see your sick mother, schedule a little bit of time in the day that is just for you…then stick to it. Depending on your day, downtime may be only twenty minutes, but even those twenty will help recharge, refresh and calm you. It’s best if you can have the time at home, so you have a couch or bed to relax on, but a lounge in the lobby of your office will do too. Make space in your calendar for downtime at least three times a week, and before you know it, you will be spending a few minutes every day doing nothing and feeling better.

2. Decide How to Spend It

This will be easy for some, more difficult for others. There are so many ways to spend your downtime, but a good starting point is to minimize mental stimulation. That means watching television, though calming for some, can actually be slightly stressful if you are watching something that is engaging your brain. Have you ever had a TV headache after watching more than two hours of TV? Not the ideal way to spend your downtime, as most of what is on television does not relax us but rather stresses us out, stimulates us, or numbs us out. And numb is not the same as relaxed! The rule to follow when deciding how to spend your downtime is do an activity you can do on your own that you enjoy that requires little movement and not much thinking. I have had clients tell me they find gardening or playing basketball very therapeutic, and perhaps you have an activity like this that helps you get focused and get rid of the thoughts and worries from the day, but again, this is not downtime. Think of downtime as sitting around doing nothing. Maybe you will put on some relaxing music. Maybe you will enjoy the silence. However you choose to spend your downtime, remember, this is precious, rare, and yours, so think through what you are going to (not) do.

3. Set a Time Limit

This is an extremely important step if you are either a busy person or a lazy person. When you set a time limit for yourself, the go-go-go part of you can relax without watching the minutes tick by and the procrastinator in you has some structure so the whole day doesn’t go by in a blur of staring at the wall. The minimum time limit for downtime is 15 minutes. This will be long enough for you to get into it and get something out of it. If 15 minutes seems like too long to “be doing nothing”, you can start with 7 minutes and work your way up through the days and weeks. If you have a more flexible schedule, your downtime could stretch to an hour or longer, but if it goes too long, most people will end up just napping their downtime minutes away. Remember, this is not a substitute for meditation, reflecting on the day, journaling, reading, or napping. It is something different. A time limit ensures you will follow the flavor of downtime as a few minutes to rest your brain and actually let it disengage from the busy-ness of the world around you. A great way to ensure you keep to your time limit is to schedule your downtime between appointments or meetings.

4. Let the Thoughts Come

On of the most common complaints people have about themselves is that they can’t seem to stop their thoughts. In a busy and fast-paced society, our minds are usually so occupied that we don’t even have a moment to reflect on how many thoughts flow through our brains in any given ten-minute span. Once you stop doing so much and commit to daily downtime, you will start notice how much you are thinking. Zen masters have called this the “monkey-mind”, the part of our brain that is always chattering about something. During downtime, we have a chance to hear all those thoughts. The temptation is to follow those thoughts, and start thinking about the next plan, project, or person on our horizon. For others, the thoughts will circulate around the pile of laundry to be folded, the homework left undone, or the outfit for the upcoming party. The key in this step is to just let the thoughts come. Do not try to stop them, do not attach to them. Just let the thoughts come like clouds on a blue sky, and observe as they float by. It is only when you start trying to control your thoughts during your downtime that they become problematic. The more you practice downtime, the easier this step will become.

5. Enjoy it!

Downtime is supposed to be refreshing, relaxing, and even fun! Let yourself really enjoy your downtime, releasing any worries about wasting time. This is a re-training of your brain, to where you are now saying that open-eyed rest is important for you to function better as a whole and healthy human being. Think of it as a pro-active technique that will help you to avoid burn-out and the resentment you feel when you are over-worked. Just as your body needs good quality food to function optimally, so your brain needs periods of open-eyed rest for renewal and creativity. Enjoy your downtime, and the more you allow yourself this little luxury, the more you will understand it’s power to restore you physically, mentally, and emotionally.