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The Importance of Down Time


If you’re like most people, you probably feel as though there simply isn’t enough time. There’s not enough time for everything you want and need to do, let alone is there time to just chill out occasionally. That would be nice, but who can manage that?

By Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW, Author of Why We Overeat and How to Stop

Many of us organize ourselves around a tyrannical to-do list that never seems to get finished. New items pile onto it faster than you can deal with the old ones, so the list just stretches out infinitely into the future. If this is the way you live, you probably spend a lot of time feeling rushed even as you fall further behind. Fear of missing out drives many of us to cram as much into every waking minute as possible, even as we feel exhausted from the effort.

We spend a lot of time on social media, which feels like doing something even though it’s usually not. Though you might think of this as a way to relax, few people report feeling better as a result of time spent this way. It is often described as a “time suck” rather than a source of relaxation or enjoyment, yet we feel drawn to it anyway. Every hour we spend doing this compresses our schedule even more.

You might be starved for down time (the non-diving kind) if you notice signs like these on a regular basis:

  • You frequently feel irritable or stressed.
  • Most days feel like a rush to meet obligations, ending only in time for you to fall into bed for too little sleep so you can get up and do it all again the next day.
  • You wonder when you’ll ever have time and energy for your personal interests.
  • You question the value of your personal interests when there always seem to be so many more important things to do.

You might think you shouldn’t feel this way but the reality is that living beings need time to rest. There are even quite a few inanimate objects that require rest and rejuvenation as well—consider cars that need to be refilled with gas, or phone batteries that run down and need to be recharged. The fact is that we require time to replenish our resources so we can continue to function as we wish. More importantly, though, we need it so we can enjoy our lives as much as possible. Without that, what’s the point?

What Down Time is Not

If you think that your sleep counts as down time, think again. The first reason it doesn’t count is that since you’re unconscious, you are not able to experience the freedom of unobligated time. Yes, your body gets some needed maintenance out of the time but you, as a stressed being, don’t get a chance to unwind. Second, many of us get too little sleep anyway and the sleep we do get is of low quality. Many of us don’t even get the full benefit of the physical maintenance we need from sleep, let alone any spiritual renewal.

If you think a vacation or two through the year counts, it’s better than nothing but that’s far too long to wait for the amount of recharging each of us actually needs. Ideally, we need it to happen a bit at a time with much greater regularity. You probably wouldn’t try to go without food for days or weeks and then eat enough all at once to make up for it because we all know that physical refueling doesn’t work that way. Emotional refueling doesn’t work that way either.

What is Down Time, Really?

For many of us, it would be a major victory simply to secure some time away from obligations and scheduling. That’s a fine start, but it gets even better. The best down time is not just time off from the rat race, but time that actually recharges you, leaving you feeling better than when you started. What this means is highly individualized to each person, but some general ideas might help you find what works for you.

  • It can feel like a mini-vacation, for example, simply to spend some time differently than you usually do. A break in your normal routine can create a mental reset, especially if the break is spent doing something satisfying. This is a miniature version of what we get from vacations.
  • You might find that you feel more relaxed spending hours engaged in one lengthy activity than you do when multi-tasking during the same period of time. Time-intensive tasks, like painting a room or doing yard work, can be an escape if you look at them that way because, for that entire time, you have just one thing to do. That’s more of a break than you might realize.
  • You might find it relaxing to spend some time not reachable on demand by others. Try going for a walk and leaving your phone at home, for example.
  • Look for opportunities to spend time in greater mindfulness and awareness, with your body and mind being in the same place at the same time rather than being wildly separated as is so often the case. Activities that engage or require your very focused attention are good for this. Diving—our other context for down time—is a perfect example of this.
  • Look for opportunities to engage in tasks or activities that free you from time awareness because you know that once you’ve started them, you need to just see them through because they take however long they take. It helps if you’ve blocked out more than enough time so that you don’t have to get anxious about how long it’s taking.
  • Notice the freedom you get from the occasional inconvenient power outage. We hate them when they happen because of all the choices we lose, but there is liberation in that loss of choice. By necessity, we have fewer options and are split in fewer directions for the duration of the outage. This can be a gift, perhaps a gift you could arrange for yourself intentionally from time to time through other means.
  • Schedule at least one day per week with just a few things to get done, leaving free time for the rejuvenating activity of your choice. Then, enjoy it fully and without guilt.

It’s often the work of our lives—paid or otherwise—that gives us a sense of meaning. It’s usually the down time in our lives that gives us most of our enjoyment and renewal. You need both, but either in excess can steal from life quality rather than adding to it. We tend to burn out when life is nothing but work, but we tend to feel that life is pointless when it’s nothing but down time. The best life is one in which the two blend together in the balance that works best for you.