Parenting involves sacrifice – that’s hardly news to anyone with kids. Whether it’s getting up early on a Saturday morning to take them to their game or going without something in order to provide for them, it’s just what we do. However, sometimes we can prioritise our children and their commitments to our own detriment, neglecting the need for personal downtime.
Author Brené Brown writes about this need for downtime in her book – Braving The Wilderness. “There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and it’s easy to believe that we must exhale all the time, without ever inhaling. But the inhale is absolutely essential if you want to continue to exhale.”
I love the breathing analogy because in terms of our overall wellbeing, having downtime is almost as critical as breathing. But what is downtime?
In his article Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, New York Times journalist Ferris Jabr writes, “Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.”
There are three key pillars of downtime – holidays, sleep and short breaks throughout the day. Each one is quite different in its benefits and frequency.
I think most of us understand the importance of taking a break from our regular, day to day routine. Whether it’s relaxing at a resort, pitching a tent out in nature or staying with a friend or relative, it’s healthy for us to get away from work and the daily reminder of all those tasks that need doing around the house. Most of us can attest to the feeling of returning from a few weeks leave with a refreshed mindset and attitude towards our work.
Some of our greatest memories as a family have been when we’re on holidays, when our kids experience us without the distractions of email and phones. When we break away from the routine of weekend chores and housework, we connect at a deeper level. On holidays, I also think we’re better at finding the right balance between doing activities together as a family and finding our own personal downtime.
More frequent (hopefully) than holidays, is the need for regular sleep. In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker – professor of neuroscience and psychology, describes how an overtired brain (and body) make us “vulnerable to cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, obesity, stroke, chronic pain, diabetes and heart attacks, among other medical conditions.” After decades of research, the commonly held rule that we need eight hours of sleep each night remains true.
I’m sure we’ve all heard of people who proudly share that they function quite well on 3-4 hours of sleep each night. However recent research shows that the effects of just a few nights of poor sleep correlates with increased levels of two proteins associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Walker notes that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who boasted that they only slept 4-5 hours a night, both went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Furthermore, it has been proven that the physical effect of going without sleep for 17-19 hours results in a cognitive impairment equivalent to, or worse than, having a blood-alcohol concentration reading of 0.05 percent (the legal limit for driving in Australia).
Regular breaks throughout the day
While most of us would acknowledge the need for holidays and regular sleep, we are often less likely to prioritise the need for regular breaks throughout the day.
Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project says that for optimal productivity, we need to take a break from our work every 90 minutes. Take a walk around the block, do some stretches or practice mindfulness. Research from the University of Sussex’s Mindlab International has shown that reading silently for 6 minutes reduces the heart rate and eases tension within muscles. Surprisingly, reading proved to be a more effective method of de-stressing than listening to music, drinking tea or coffee and even taking a walk.
Far from being a waste of time, Jabr notes that those epiphanies that seemingly came from nowhere “are often the product of unconscious mental activity during downtime.”
I know from personal experience when trying to solve a complex problem, there is a temptation to bunker down and focus more. Yet often the best thing we can do is take a break and do something completely different. Schwartz says, “human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal.”
In advocating the need for downtime, I’m not suggesting we escape reality or our responsibilities as parents. But in the same way that the research shows that we do our best work when we have regular intervals of downtime, I think we’re more likely to be the best version of ourselves as parents when we regularly practice downtime.