As I write this, I am struggling. Struggling to find the time I need to down tools, switch off and unplug. I know only too well how important downtime is, and I also know how high the cost is of not listening to my body and mind and pushing through no matter what. In 2017 I suffered a breakdown that left me frail, lifeless, and physically and mentally unwell. I had ignored the symptoms of exhaustion and stress on my nervous system for years. Ten years earlier I knew something wasn’t right but couldn’t put my finger on it. I can remember driving home from work and needing to pull over as my eyelids were so heavy. As the years passed, I was getting cold virus after cold virus. My skin was flaring up with acne and cold sores and my hair was falling out. I also lost my appetite and began to have a ringing in my ears. Emotionally there was this background feeling of unease. I was also in denial about the panic attacks I had suffered.
"However, I would not give in to the thought that I may be suffering from stress. No, stress, in my blinkered opinion was a weakness."
However, I would not give in to the thought that I may be suffering from stress. No, stress, in my blinkered opinion was a weakness. And I, the go-getter, career-climber and all-round achiever, was not weak and could soldier on, no matter what! So, instead of turning towards myself and my symptoms, I turned against myself. The tiredness I put down to having two young children and a demanding new job. The aching muscles and catching numerous colds I explained away as training too hard – I was running a lot at the time. My skin and hair problems I considered to be hormonal and my loss of appetite was because I didn’t have time to eat, and anyway, my stomach was churning most of the time.
Ten years of my body giving me clear signals that I was near burnout. Ten years of wrong thinking about stress. Ten years of hiding the pressure I was under from those closest to me, for fear of being a burden. But I kept going. Until, one day, my body decided enough was enough and I crashed. It took six months of recovery and a further 18 months to fully heal from this. And in hindsight, I could have prevented one of the most difficult periods of my life with regular breaks and downtime.
Now, I know it’s a lot more complex than that. You don’t just schedule in a break here and there and your life is suddenly transformed, but taking time out is vital to the development of healthy habits, body awareness and caring for our whole self. I’d like to define what I mean by downtime and share my thoughts on why including it every day is essential for wellbeing.
Downtime is defined as a time of not working – this applies to both humans and machinery. It is considered a time of not being productive, busy or at work. I consider this to mean a period of rest, inactivity and switching off from regular activities. However, downtime is not, in my option, simply a spa break once a year or a 2-week holiday in the summer. I believe it is an intentional, repeated period of time. One that appears to be unproductive but allows for a time of rest and rejuvenation.
"Downtime is not, in my option, simply a spa break once a year or a 2-week holiday in the summer.”
In the ten years I was ignoring the effects of stress on my life, a doctor, who I fully respected, told me the answer to my frequent ill health was “to have a holiday on a Greek Island”. But and he chuckled as he said it, “a holiday with young children, really isn’t a holiday, is it?” I understood his intentions were good, but I was left feeling even more hopeless. I now think about how the conversation could have gone differently: “Well Sarah, I understand and know what it’s like to have a demanding job with a young family. Do you feel you are taking on too much at the moment? Is there someone that can help you with the children? Have you thought about taking a break from work, would this be possible? Are there ways you can include some downtime in your day? What does your diet/sleep/movement/self-care/lifestyle look like right now? Let’s have a look at what options there are and work something out together.”
Whilst I am not a doctor, or in any way medically trained, I now ask these questions of myself, my family, and my clients because I understand how important they are in helping people recognise and step away from overwhelm, stress and potential burnout.
So, what would I do differently, based on my experience of those ten years and my subsequent breakdown? How do I now look after myself? And, crucially, how do I create the much needed downtime in my life today?
D is for...
Determined, decisive and down to you! Time for some tough love - making and taking time for yourself can only start with you, you must be determined and decisive in order for this to happen. No-one is going to come along and wave a magic wand or give you extra hours in your day. But you can choose to let things go, say no, reduce your time scrolling or overworking or checking emails late at night. You can decide to worry less about how clean or Pinterest worthy your home is. You get to create the downtime you need, in whatever shape it takes. But the key thing is - it starts and ends with you.
Say ‘no’, even if you’ve committed and said ‘yes’.
You are allowed to change your mind and I am giving you permission to not do something if it is detrimental to your peace, rest and wellbeing. Tonight, I’m exhausted and so are my family (and it’s only Monday!) and so, we are not going out to do the usual sports this evening. We are ordering take out and are putting our PJ’s on to have a quiet night in.
Look at your week in advance.
Every Sunday evening I still down with my week planner and look at the week as a whole – sometimes two weeks in advance. It enables me to feel prepared, reducing the amount of surprises and unexpected work/life/admin things that inevitability crop up each week.
Plan it, Write it, Do it!
Using the pre-week check in, I make sure I have planned in downtime, just like I plan in the appointment at the dentist, going to the gym or a scheduled call with a client. It has the same priority, and therefore, deserves a plan on my calendar. Once it is written down, I then have to follow through.
Start small to begin with and build up your downtime as if it were a tool kit. Begin with an uninterrupted cup of tea, then once this is consistent and a feature every day, introduce something that takes you a bit longer – a walk or swim, playing your ukulele or taking a nap. Then when you have found your feet, go for something you can plan and commit to for a full day – no excuses. This could be a day trip to visit a friend, sightseeing at a local attraction or the sheer luxury of a duvet day.
You do you.
Find what works for you. On any given week my downtime looks like this: deep breathing whilst the kettle is boiling, a walk after the school run/at lunch time, a cup of tea after the school run in the afternoon or after work – preferably sitting in the garden, bare feet on the grass or indoors with the fire on, going to bed 30 minutes early to read and journal, a bath with candles and drink of choice at least once a week, knitting/reading/napping on a Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon, spa treatment once a month at an actual spa (no skimping with a face mask at home), date night once a month sans children, intentional days off from work every week and for a week at Easter, Christmas and at least three in the summer.
Progress not perfection.
This is not about ‘getting it right or doing it perfectly’, but rather, something is always better than nothing. 5 minutes of downtime every day is more beneficial than a half day once a month, but half a day once a month is better than nothing at all. Consistency is key and once you get started with intention, you’ll be surprised at how quickly downtime can become part of your daily routine.
What are your thoughts on downtime, is it something that you need in your life? I’d love to know in the comments below, or on my social feeds - @iamsarahalexcarter Let me know what resonates with you when you think about wellbeing and the letter D. Another great way to enjoy your downtime is reading this blog. You can also click to subscribe and join me on this journey from A to Z and be the first to receive updates.
Let's work, rest & play well this year!