At two points in my “grown-up” life, I’ve been through phases of intense work which drove home the importance of making sure I had enough downtime. One was when I started teaching (I ended up on sick leave) and the other was when I was preparing Going Solo (a welcome cat bite probably prevented me from burning out completely).
I learned that when you do nothing but work, you can’t recuperate. Since then, I’ve always paid attention to preserving enough time “for myself”. Even when I have a lot of work and have “no time”, I still make time to eat with friends, watch TV series, read, sleep, etc. I never work until two in the morning, I take my week-ends off (there are exceptions), and generally am pretty good at setting boundaries between “work” and “non-work” modes (which might make certain people feel I’m hard to reach ;-)).
Over my lunch break today, I think I understood something really important — and funnily, just after saying that I don’t feel like writing anything these days, I feel an urge to blog about it here.
The thing I understood is the following: there are different kinds of downtime.
I’ve been thinking about this these last days — for example, I use both iPhone games and TV series to relax or take my mind off stuff, but for different purposes.
One of my ongoing grievances about life these last months is that I feel tired and worn-out and don’t seem to be able to recuperate despite having taken a lot of time off (holidays here and elsewhere) since working too much this spring.
I go home for lunch break (it’s just two floors above my coworking space eclau, so it’s not much of a commute). I needed to sit a bit before preparing lunch, so I took a book and sat down on my balcony couch (yes, you can be jealous).
But I didn’t open the book. I just stared outside at the garden, looked at my plants, stared into space some more, did some low-level plant maintenance, stared into space, looked at the garden… See the idea? All that time, my mind was wandering idly around, thinking about this and that, and that and this, going back in time, forward in time… Just undirected thinking about… “stuff”.
And I realised that I don’t actually give myself much time for that. Thinking without doing anything else while I think. Maybe my discomfort these
days months has to do with the fact that I have things to process and haven’t really been making appropriate space for that — despite all my downtime.
So, what kind of downtime do I give myself, and what need does it fulfill? And what are your types of downtime?
Fiction (whether books or TV) takes me out of my life. It disconnects me from what is preoccupying me. At the same time, it’s like an emotional catalyst. I’m the kind of person who’ll end up crying whilst watching CSI. I like movies that take you on an emotional roller-coaster. So in that respect, fiction also helps me reconnect.
I’m the kind of “on-off” casual gamer, but ever since I downloaded Angry Birds (end of last year) I’ve been playing iPhone games regularly. Games allow me to wind down and distract me, but without the emotional component I get from fiction. Games are also more active, and speak to my obsessive streak.
I have an exercise bike at home I try to use regularly, I do judo, sing, and go sailing. Physical activity empties my head and tires my body — vital for something with a desk-bound job like mine. Sometimes my mind wanders off and I do some light thinking, but most of the time, I’m just completely taken by what I’m doing.
Online downtime includes idly chatting, catching up with people, reading random articles… It’s a way of keeping busy without being productive, and maybe of avoiding “more down” downtime. It also leads to new ideas and insights, new interests to explore. It’s good for a breath of fresh air but at times like now where I feel worn out, overworked and oversocialized, I avoid it.
I’m not sure if socializing is a “downtime” activity for me. I’m not much of a bar/club person, so for me socializing is either “networking” (and that’s work) or long (often personal) discussions with people I’m close to. I also know I switch modes when I’m around people. I guess it is a kind of downtime I need, but there are times when I’m more in an introvert mood and seeing people adds to my stress (maybe — hypothesis — because it’s stressful for me to be around people when I’m unsatisfied with something I do not manage to put in words; hmmm, maybe blogging is to be included under “socializing”?)
Thinking is just that. Thinking. Not really doing anything. It happens when I clean the flat or the dishes or do laundry, but only if I’m taking all the time in the world and not really paying much attention to what I’m doing. Going for a walk or sitting on the balcony (without a book or an iPhone!) is also an opportunity for this kind of downtime where I let my mind wander around freely and think about whatever it is I want to be thinking, without real aim or purpose.
I’m sure that when watching TV, or exercising, or reading a book, there is some background processing going on in my brain. I’m sure it’s useful and necessary. But this is more like frontground processing.
And this, I think, is what’s been missing — and might be the reason why I’m having trouble identifying what is behind my feeling of “not quite right” (although objectively, everything is going fine).
Having understood this, I’m going to make sure I have time every day to sit on my balcony and stare into space. We’ll see what happens.