By Heidi Stevens
There’s a thin line between downtime and wasting time, and it’s easily blurred by Netflix.
We’re inundated with statistics and stories about how we’re all overscheduled and under-rested. “Busy-ness,” described as both a virtue and an epidemic, inspires countless blog posts and a healthy number of books.
“Always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door,” Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte writes in “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time” (Picador), the 2014 book widely heralded as a must-read.
It’s little wonder, then, that we crave, and find, ways to decompress, often through pursuits that don’t add much to our lives. Clicking through your college boyfriend’s vacation photos on Facebook, for example. Candy Crushing your pals. Binge-watching “Friends.” (Thanks, Netflix!)
But is that a good or a bad thing? Experts warn parents and educators against overscheduling children, whose growing minds and bodies need downtime to develop in every realm: social, emotional, academic and physical. But we don’t spend as much energy defending unstructured time for adults.
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“There’s a stigma around downtime,” says Shimi Kang, a Harvard-trained child and adult psychiatrist and author of “The Self-Motivated Kid: How to Raise Happy, Healthy Children Who Know What They Want and Go After It (Without Being Told)” (Tarcher/Penguin).
“It sounds a little woo-woo to say you prioritize rest,” she says. “People judge you as not very ambitious, not very competitive.”
In truth, Kang says, restorative downtime is critical for our mental and physical health.
“Breaks are moments of breakthroughs,” Kang says. “Certain biological processes occur exclusively during moments of relaxed wakefulness, when the brain’s default-mode network becomes activated.”
Productivity, problem-solving, attention, creativity, a moral compass, all are strengthened and improved when our bodies have a chance to rest, Kang says.
“A time of relaxed wakefulness is when we integrate what we’ve felt or heard,” she says. “It’s when we make sense of our past and apply it to our future, so our sense of ethics, our sense of self, even empathy, are all shown to improve.”
But all downtime is not created equal, says time-use expert Laura Vanderkam, author of “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time” (Portfolio/Penguin).
“There’s a big difference between consciously doing nothing versus actually wasting time,” Vanderkam says. “Wasting time is spending it on things that aren’t particularly meaningful or even enjoyable to you.”
Surfing channels for an hour is wasting time, she says. Watching an episode or two of your favorite show, on the other hand, is healthy downtime.
“You want to make sure downtime is doing what it’s supposed to do, which is rejuvenate you so you can return to your busy life more refreshed,” Vanderkam says. “If it’s not adding to your energy levels, you may want to stop doing it.”
That doesn’t mean you have to spend your downtime reading Tolstoy.
“We’ve gotten this idea that we have to be productive every second,” says Rachel Macy Stafford, author of “Hands Free Life: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better and Loving More” (Zondervan, due out in September). “We’ve run out of times and places where we can just let our mind wander. Even in the car, where we used to just drive and process our thoughts, now people are texting or using their hands-free devices to talk. Nowhere do we get a chance to just be, instead of do.”
Stafford says she trained herself to build “connective silences” into her days.
“I give myself permission to be all there in certain moments,” she says. “It might be sitting on the floor of my daughter’s room while she’s picking out her clothes, instead of scurrying around picking up her mess. I’m thinking about how the carpet feels, how my breathing sounds, looking at her face and taking in her freckles. It’s almost a meditative experience.”
Stafford says she hit a point a few years ago when her life felt like it was spinning out of her control, which prompted her to ask herself some questions.
“Does the amount of time and attention I currently offer my family indicate that they’re a top priority in my life?” she recalls. “And you could easily substitute, ‘Does the time and attention I offer myself indicate that I’m a top priority?'”
And, “Does my current schedule allow time just to simply sit and be with my loved ones, or simply sit and be with myself?”
When she didn’t like the answers, she knew it was time to make some changes.
Wasting time, Vanderkam points out, can prevent you from enjoying the all-important downtime.
“We waste time in ways that may look productive,” Vanderkam says. “You probably wouldn’t waste a full two hours on Facebook, but you might spend two hours in a meeting you didn’t need to attend. The meeting might have been a bigger waste of time, especially if you had to arrange child care, get to and from the office and pay for parking.”
Kang says she would like to see more medical practitioners weigh in on the need for downtime.
“We need an authoritative voice telling people to take breaks in your days, to slow down,” Kang says. “I met once with a young person, 21 years old, who was being assessed for ADHD. She said every time she tried to study or focus, she would find herself staring at the clouds and trees.
“She didn’t have ADHD; she just literally had no time to stare at the clouds and trees,” Kang continued. “I told her, ‘That’s not a disorder. That’s a signal to change your lifestyle. You don’t have a mental health issue. You have a scheduling issue.'”
Her patients often tell her they don’t have time to build rest into their lives, Kang says. She has a ready answer.
“I tell people, then you’re too busy for optimal health,” she says. “You’re too busy to perform optimally. Too busy to be brilliant, to be the best athlete, to be the best CEO, writer, homemaker _ whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. Because you need rest to do all of those things.”
And if you’re still not sure whether you’re wasting time or giving yourself a much-needed break, try Vanderkam’s rule.
“If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re probably not wasting your time,” she says. “You come home with no energy, and it’s very easy to turn on the TV, but it’s not particularly restorative in the way going for a walk with your spouse would be.
“You want to think about how to make space for stuff you’ll really savor and enjoy,” she says. “Most people after the third hour of TV just feel sort of disgusted with themselves.”