On the Virtues of Down Time

I burned the candle from both ends for much of my early adulthood, working more than full-time between several part-time jobs while carrying 16 to 24 credit hours per semester with assorted extracurriculars at a school more than hour away from my residence. I’d be up by 7 a.m. and usually didn’t get home until sometimes as late as 2 a.m. And I did this, day in and day out, for years.

When I radically downsized my roster of commitments, it took me months — months — to be able to sit home and not get stressed out over doing nothing. Sometimes I’d catch myself pacing in the living room. I didn’t know how to decompress; more to the point, I didn’t have an objective measure of stress. Those early days set a dangerously high baseline. I tried to fill the gap anyway, mostly with running and karate and trips to the mall to people-watch and playing World of Warcraft until 2 a.m.

Since those early transition days, I’ve more sanely level-set my expectations about stress. I can see the warning signs and have strategies for addressing spikes. Not a big deal. But funny thing — I’m no longer capable of burning from both ends for any extended time. I’ve been doing some contract work for most of February and into March that kept me busy, and I could feel the stress levels rise. Not because the work was too much or too difficult, but because I gave up a big chunk of my normal “down time.” This marked the first time when I really noticed the impact of being persistently busy.

Put differently: I’m happier, healthier and more serene when I can dedicate time to recharging my emotional batteries. Each day, I usually spend 90 minutes or so sitting down with reading materials (either magazines or RSS feeds), a premium cigar and one standard serving of an adult beverage, usually either port or some type of whiskey. And I read and relax and let my mind engage. I’ve accomplished more reading in the last six months than in the prior six years.

I also value the time I can get away on the weekends. At least one weekend each month must be unencumbered, or I start to get crabby.

Sometimes I wonder if the issue is that I’m getting older, or if I’m adjusting to a more mature mindset. I don’t know. All I can say is, life’s too short to spend it pursuing tasks without building in the time to stop and smell the roses.