Inertia - Nº123
Being comfortable with taking time off
Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.
— John Lubbock, The Use Of Life
Taking time off is a luxury we all deserve, yet struggle to take. It’s hard for most people to switch to a more relaxed state without sensing a murmur of guilt in their minds. But nothing is less realistic than striving to be 100% attentive during every waking minute of our lives.
Summer is often messy yet pleasurably unexpected. People slow down. They find it easier to keep the smiles on their faces. And we tend to feel a little less loaded. But even when we are generally happier, how can we learn to consistently avoid that feeling of disappointment when we take a break?
Under the pressure to have the best time or else, people find it much harder than they are willing to admit to being able to switch off. I recently went on a road trip eight hours away from home. And while it was aimed at me switching off for a few days, I couldn’t help but sense an occasional buzz in my head that tempted me to check my phone. It settled a little while later, which was bliss. But it comes from being untrained in downshifting from being always-on to being relaxed. Think of it like kayaking uncontrollably down screaming rapids and straight into a gentle ocean. You struggle to see and feel the beauty in your surroundings because you’re constantly arguing in your head or worrying—are the waves going to get choppy again? What if I fall asleep and something catches me off-guard?—and that pressure makes it extremely hard to sit still and breathe freely.
Switching off is easier said than done. I know. It’s near impossible to suddenly command yourself to put things down, think freely and immediately feel comfortable. But the less you give yourself access to this side of yourself (i.e., the less you become used to taking breaks), the more painful it will feel to forgive yourself for surrendering to a slower pace. And the less likely you will do it.
Leisure feels too unfamiliar and jarring for many people. Most don’t even know what their hobbies are. But we need them higher in our priorities. Nowadays, I love having space to think, be alone, discover, follow a thread of curiosity and enjoy what I love doing. I used to struggle until I made my desire for it feel like when we crave food or sleep after being deprived.
That was the best thing about being a kid and why time felt longer. Endless space to discover. Creating concepts with no direction. Admiring the most abstract of things. You were celebrated back then for curiosity, whereas now it’s all about efficiency and efficacy.
People generally don’t expect (or want) to feel too anxious to breathe or switch off. We spend weeks or months picturing our holiday, letting ourselves be consumed by the good feelings of a vacation. But from the start, most people struggle with conflict creep: little niggling issues that start to feel like they are ruining your week, and sooner or later, the earth turns, weeks pass, and you forget quickly.
We go from school to graduate studies to living in an industry that awards us a small percent of the year off. For most of that time, we’re in this steady-state mode trying to contribute something meaningful and not feel like time has flown by. And when it’s time to rest, we naturally develop unhealthy feelings of guilt at the fact we’ve stopped trying to “get ahead” for a while. Even if you capped off a big project or graduated with a PhD, it can make little difference.
View your leisure as a genuine requirement
Your leisure activities are as important as anything on your to-do list. That’s a helpful trick I learned lately to help me remember to see those activities as a requirement. Checking off yoga, bike rides, video games or my reading list like it’s a priority—because it is.
If you can’t think of anything, that’s fine too. Part of leisure is cultivating new pastimes and unplugging from work through that. The keyword to switching off is realism: embrace practicality and leave any fantasy of perfection behind. Instead of expecting too much, try to do less, to concentrate on the small joys of being imperfect in an imperfect world. That will help you slow down and relax as it did me. Dismiss the voice in your head shouting at you. Remember, it’s not about making things better or perfect; it’s about loving them as is before you do seek anything more.
The parts of life you enjoy will be the most vivid. The suspenseful parts that matter, that you will tell people decades later. Embrace the good stories. Your thrills, disappointments, and unexpected turns. Don’t shut yourself away from time off or sitting still for a moment. Instead, breathe, slow down, and enjoy every twist and turn.