Why 'me time' is the most important part of the day
In 2007, media mogul Arianna Huffington had a wake-up call that would change her life. The co-founder of the Huffington Post was working late one night when she fainted and, on the way down, hit her head on her desk. The result? A broken cheekbone, stitches near her right eye – and the discovery that to get ahead, we actually need to take time out.
While Huffington is one of the busiest and most influential women in the world, sleep has become her ‘thing’. She calls herself a ‘sleep evangelist’ and encourages women in particular to ‘sleep their way to the top’ (not like that!). Huffington has revolutionised her offices all over the world, installing sleep pods and giving staff access to yoga and meditation classes. Resting and unplugging, she says, is just as important to our health as eating well and moving our bodies. Still, it’s something so many of us find difficult to do.
The consequences of always being busy
Professor Karen Thorpe, who works in the school of psychology at Queensland University of Technology, says that, as a culture, we’re not comfortable with the idea of taking time for ourselves. “Working long hours is highly prized in our society. There’s an element of competition in working hard and constantly being busy.”
Think about how you usually answer when someone asks how you are. Is it: “Busy”? (Guilty as charged, over here.) Research suggests we see ‘busyness’ as a status symbol, which helps explain why we're so loathed to rest. A 2016 study by Harvard Business School in the US showed that so-called ‘busy’ people are usually perceived by others as being impressive.
But constantly being on call, and never taking time for ourselves, can lead to some pretty nasty consequences. Not only does burnout lead to mental exhaustion – “Think of the way you snap at your kids, your partner, your employees when you’re tired,” says Professor Thorpe – it has been shown to have some devastating physical effects.
A study from Tel Aviv University in Israel found that burnout increases our risk of cardiovascular disease just as much as other factors such as increased BMI, smoking and high cholesterol. We’re also more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and sleep disorders if we’re exhausted. Professor Thorpe says we should start by reframing our thinking.
“We need to start seeing rest as something that is productive,” she says. “Unfortunately, we view rest as indulgent and unproductive, but that’s not true. Study after study shows us taking time for ourselves helps us recharge and work more efficiently when we clock back on.”
A 2009 study showed that active leisure, such as gardening or playing sport, helps reduce depression, and an internal audit of accounting firm Ernst & Young from 2006 showed that for each additional 10 hours of holidays employees took, their year-end performance ratings from their supervisors actually improved by eight percent.
Time out is something Brooke McAlary, host of the Slow Home podcast and author of Destination Simple, is passionate about. In her book, she notes how we’re bombarded with more information than at any other time in history – and yet we so infrequently take time out. “We need time to ourselves. Time to let the noise, stimulus and information subside. Time when we’re not trying to cram more in.” It sounds good to us.
How to take time out
Voice the need for rest, says Thorpe. “Tell your partner you need to take time out regularly (and urge them to do the same). And get comfortable saying no – you don’t have to do everything. If your kids do sport on a Saturday morning, for instance, could you use this time – even just once a month – to take some time for yourself?”
If you find it hard to be mindful, McAlary suggests doing a “brain dump” before you take time out. Simply write down anything that’s on your mind. By doing this, she says, “it no longer occupies space in your mind, leaving you to think more clearly”.
McAlary suggests setting aside 15 to 30 minutes every day to unplug – no laptop, phone, TV or radio. Block out this time in your day as an appointment, and set an alarm, so you’ll stick to it. You could read a magazine or book (hard copy!), sit outside in the sun, or just have a quiet cup of coffee.
Unwinding from social media
When it comes to unwinding online, Professor Thorpe cautions against scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. “There’s nothing definitively good or bad about social media, but I think that using these as a form of relaxation is probably not the best way to use your time. It’s not a mindful way to rest. Do you feel better, or more energised, when you’ve spent 20 minutes scrolling through your feed? Probably not.”