Written by therapist Sydney Kittrell

When’s the last time you were bored? Is your google calendar scheduled down to the very minute? Do you immediately pick up your phone at red lights, in line at the grocery store, any chance you have a free second? You’re not alone. People consistently report checking and responding to emails even during vacation, and what’s more, Americans have stopped taking vacations altogether. A survey by Harris Interactive found that at the end of 2012 Americans on average hadn’t even used nine of their paid vacation days. And this shows in our daily conversations. When we talk to friends and family, the typical response to “How have you been?” is “Busy.” “So busy.” “Crazy busy!” And as writer Tim Kreider points out, “it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the ICU or commuting by bus to three minimum wage jobs who tell you how busy they are.” Busy, yes, but more so exhausted and drained. Those that claim to be busy are often busy of their own choosing, adding more and more to the schedule in an effort to do it all or perhaps in an effort to avoid it all. 

Busyness Posing As Pride and Productivity

We can easily mistake busyness for productivity. We may be stressed and anxious in the midst of our busy schedules but at least we’re productive? Alas, this is not necessarily the case. When we have time for mind-wandering, there is more opportunity for creativity, brainstorming, and reflection, ultimately leading to more robust productivity. We can also get into the problematic pattern of using busyness as a source of self-esteem. We are busy AKA we are important. Being busy can serve as a shallow, unsustainable sense of pride. 

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m all about ambition and drive. Commitment to a cause and a strong work ethic are admirable and honorable traits. However, when we are compulsively occupied and can’t sit still with our own thoughts and emotions without lunging for our phones for distraction, I think something’s up. Perhaps, there is an element of avoidance and denial of emotions wrapped up in our busy lifestyles. 

Reasons to Prioritize Downtime

Socio-emotional Skills

Studies have shown that a particular set of scattered brain regions fire during times of rest and mind-wandering. This complex circuit became known as the default mode network (DMN). Processes that depend on the DMN often involve internal mental processing, like imagining the future, reflecting on memories, and thinking through moral decisions. These socio-emotional skills are at risk with constant distraction from increased technology usage. By prioritizing downtime, you are giving yourself the opportunity to develop these crucial socio-emotional skills. 

The Beauty of Soft Fascination 

Hard fascination is defined as attention held by a stimulating environment, like watching television. Hard fascination can be a wholly positive and restorative experience, but does not allow for mind-wandering. On the other hand, soft fascination is when one’s attention is held by a less stimulating activity, like watching a sunrise or listening to birds. Soft fascination provides the freedom for meaningful reflection and introspection. 

Breaking the Cycle of Avoidance

After having a tough conversation with a loved one or experiencing adverse life circumstances, it can be so tempting to distract oneself with busyness. You stay late at work, you bring work home with you, and your schedule has no wiggle room. This feels good in the moment, but is simply not sustainable. By leaving room for downtime, you can begin the journey of processing important emotions and experiences. 

Ways to Escape the Busy and Chaotic Lifestyle

Avoid Technology During Downtime 

It’s happened to us all. We have a spare 30 minutes, we grab our phone, and suddenly those 30 minutes turn into an hour and we’re late and behind. It’s so easy to use technology as a distraction rather than a way to rest and recharge. If you truly want to feel rested, try putting your phone in a different room when sitting down to enjoy a meal or a conversation. 

Separate Work and Home

With the popularity of working from home, creating a healthy work-life balance is harder than ever. It’s all too easy to let work bleed into other areas of life and we end up feeling consistently overwhelmed, leading to feelings of burnout and fatigue. Having clear boundaries, like not responding to emails after 6 pm and taking weekends off, can lead to a healthier work-life balance and an overall restful lifestyle. 

Actually Take That Vacation

Briefly stepping away from day-to-day responsibilities can lead to long term productivity improvements, lower stress levels, and a chance for creativity. It can be tempting to skip the vacation in the midst of daily stress or financial concerns, but any reprieve from the daily grind has the potential to replenish and re-energize. A vacation does not have to be a week away at some far-off luxurious beach. Plan ahead and think about what fills you up. Is it reading a book in the sun, exploring a new place, or enjoying a delicious meal with someone you love? Prioritize some sort of experience to intermittently break away from the routine of work. 

If you feel afraid or unable to slow down, we’re here to help. We would be honored to process through emotions and feelings you may have avoided through busyness. Reach out today and you can begin your journey to a more restful and peaceful lifestyle. 

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