It was 1am.
I was lying in bed in a pink fluffy dressing gown, writing out a list of everything I had to do that week. I couldn’t sleep, because I was too worried about making sure everything would get done. Those with insomnia will recognise this as The Witching Hour.
And oh, the list was bloody long: I had invoicing to complete, bathrooms to clean, meals to prep, events to attend, articles to write, family to call, and clients to meet. My online diary looked like a game of Tetris. Half hour blocks were stolen in between meetings (“eat lunch”) or after work (“go for a run”). As I stared at the busy week looming large, I realised one thing was noticeably missing: downtime.
The stolen moments of relaxation in which we turn off our phones, close down our laptops, and relax. If you’re me, that means eating Milo straight out of the tin, sitting on the couch and staring out the window. You know, ‘me time’.
But as my nights became more sleepless and my days became more stuffed, I had to realise that downtime needs to be much more than spiking sugar levels and blank gazing at Punt Road traffic.
Relaxing had become just as important as carving out time for exercise, or work, or sleep. It’s about giving your mind and body some time to pause, and rest, and regenerate for the next day of back-to-back meetings and email ambush.
So I set myself a mission: to schedule downtime into my diary. And stick to it. (No Milo allowed.)
Giving yourself permission to relax is a tricky thing to do. We are all primed to believe that sitting down and kicking your feet up is lazy. The desire to appear busy is such an epidemic that many workplaces now have to enforce the rule that no-one eats at their desk. Madness.
Everyone from stay-at-home mums to corporate CEOs struggle to convince themselves they deserve some downtime in their lives. To book in a massage, attend a slow yoga or meditation class, get your nails done, or even just seeing a movie is like dropping the bundle.
“Did you see Tracy today? She was at the massage parlour. At 2pm! I know! Those poor children.”
So it was with great reluctance that I shuffled around my Tetris diary to make room for ‘me time’. I cancelled a Tuesday dinner to stay at home and have a bath instead. I pulled out of Friday drinks and booked in a facial. I even blocked out my Saturday morning - invoicing time - to attend yoga instead.
This was just a few weeks ago, and let me tell you, I am feeling like a new person.
My micro-managing lifestyle - the fallout from a pretty intense few weeks of some massive life changes - was not healthy. I was panicked about how much I had to do alone, and how I would do it. But burning the candle from both ends (and the middle, and the sides) was leaving me exhausted and overwhelmed. I woke up tired, and went to bed exhausted. Something had to change.
Listen: Simple rituals to stave off the blues. (Post continues after audio.)
So, I gave myself permission to relax.
There was a great article a few years back in the New York Times, where psychologist Dr Daniel J. Levitin spoke about how overwhelmed the average person has become. His article came just before their mid-year holidays, and he was urging his readers to actually, you know, take a break. Our brains are tired, he said. And like any tired muscle, they need regular rest.
“According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986,” he wrote.
“As the world’s 21,274 television stations produce some 85,000 hours of original programming every day (by 2003 figures), we watch an average of five hours of television per day.”
He then points out that our human brain has two primary functions: to process tasks, or to imagine. They quite literally cannot do the two at once. Scrolling social media or checking emails will kick your brain into task-managing mode, and completely block your daydreaming and creativity.
"Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode,” says Dr Levitin. “This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.”
Downtime, daydreaming, and relaxing, are the only conditions which our brain has time to create. It’s the time which you will solve problems, sharpen skills, build confidence, and really engage with our thoughts.
Suddenly, doing nothing becomes very important.
Pleasure and relaxation should have a place in your diary, alongside working and the general housekeeping of life. Don’t roll your eyes and tell me you don’t have time - make time. Plan your week. Find half an hour a day.
It doesn’t matter if it means lying among the Lego on your living room floor during nap time, and listening to a meditation podcast.
Or going for a 20 minute foot massage on your lunch break. Or walking through the park (sans headphones!) on the way home from work. Find time to treat yourself, and your mind and body will thank you.
And if you need a little extra nudge, send yourself an Outlook reminder - trust me, it works.