When we have a lot to do (and what ambitious professional ever lacks “a lot to do”?) we tend to feel guilty about having downtime at all. So when we do, it’s often reluctant or accidental or the product of procrastination. The thinking is that, since we do have so much to do, we don’t “deserve” to take a break. This, of course, is understandable but ultimately misguided thinking. For your brain to function at its optimal level, it needs rest. It needs to think about a wide range of things, not just work. Downtime – when executed correctly – can end up being as professionally beneficial as any hours spent behind your desk or in meetings. Here’s how to make your downtime work for you instead of against you.
1. Relax with intention
Don’t avoid the idea of taking downtime. Don’t let it happen accidentally, or as a result of total burn out. Go into downtime purposefully, with your eyes open, and your mind free of guilt.
2. Prioritize taking time off
Even the most over-booked small business owners have to take time for self-care; you go to the dentist, or the doctor when you’re sick. Maybe you even get to the gym from time to time. And since there is clear, justifiable benefit to doing these things, you have little qualms about prioritizing them and blocking off dedicated chunks of time for them. Downtime should be the same way – your brain and body need to recharge, both for your own well-being and for your vitality and clarity at work. So protect your downtime. Put it on the calendar. Make no apologies, neither to yourself nor others, about taking it.
3. Focus on non-work parts of life
When you do finally get around to taking a break from work, make sure you’re actually breaking from work. Small business owners can be a little…obsessive about what they do for a living. For the most part, this is a strength; without that passion, your business isn’t likely to go far. But during downtime, it’s important to remember that other parts of your life still exist and deserve some of your mental energy too. Sometimes the best way to get perspective on business matters is to step away from them for a minute and literally get a different perspective. You can only see so much when you’re too close to an issue. So hang out with your family, or friends, or dog. Watch mindless TV. Go for walks. Do crossword puzzles. Either do what you can to empty your brain of all thoughts, or simply redirect your focus to non-work pursuits. Trust me, you can do it.
4. Do things that are good for you
A strong mind lives inside a healthy body. There’s just no getting around that reality, no matter how much we like to think that we can survive on a diet of coffee, take-out, and 3 hours of sleep per night. We can, but only for so long. So while you’re giving your brain a chance to reset itself, do something kind for your body at the same time: eat really good food, get some sun on your face, exercise, and in. It will feel wonderful while you’re doing it, but more than that, you’ll be shocked at how strong and wide awake and calm your mind is when you return to work.
5. Go outside your comfort zone
Our brains do this weird thing where they somewhat atrophy if we stay in the habit of performing the same routine and thinking about the same things repeatedly, which most of us tend to do. New stimuli and out-of-the-ordinary experiences can engage parts of our brains that don’t get much play in the course of our normal lives. Even small things like changing the route you drive to work can create a little spark in a sleepy corner of your brain – or do something crazy like skydiving in your downtime. These shake-ups can give you a slightly altered edge when it comes to thinking about business matters upon your return to the office. Sometimes you have to challenge your brain to get the most out of it.
Really, read anything. It’s relaxing, it takes your mind away from work without numbing your brain, it inspires creative thought and impersonal problem-solving, and no matter what you’re reading, you’re likely to learn something. If your idea of downtime is taking a night off to do nothing but lay in bed and read for a few hours, it will be time well-spent.
7. Organize something
Some people genuinely love cleaning and organizing, while others put it off and avoid it as much as possible. If you’re the latter type, be honest: it still feels really good once you’ve gone through the tedious process of actually doing it, right? Try focusing on the positive aspects to spending your downtime organizing: It’s a great way to clear your head (you can drink some tea, turn on your favorite music, and just power through mindlessly), it involves where clean, uncomplicated problem solving, and when you’re done, you have a space that feels calm, orderly, and functional – which is a feeling that, I promise you, will translate to your mental state. Exactly what you should aim to walk away from downtime with.