When you woke up this morning, how did you feel? Refreshed or tired? If you felt tired, was it because you were sick or overloaded at work? Or is there a deeper driver of your tiredness – living in a rest resistant culture?
Recently I found myself staring at an advertisement inside a shopping centre that took up the entire wall. “Use your downtime for news-time”, it read, promoting an app for news feeds.
When did downtime become so dispensable, I wonder?
Using ‘downtime for news-time’ is one way we can adjust to the intensification of our waking hours. Never stand still. Fill every possible moment – including those times on public transport we once stared out the window – with tweeting, texting and catch up calls.
Is cramming the best way to adapt to more being demanded of us? Maybe, to some extent, in some situations. But all the time?
We are still waiting to discover the extent of our ability to tolerate less sleep, more caffeine and high-speed, hyper-connected days. But as long as the operating systems of the human body-mind are based on rhythms and cycles, ebb and flow, there is no dispensing of downtime without eroding the very basis of life itself.
Whether talking about our body temperature, heartbeat, sleep-wake hormones, breathing or reproduction, rhythm is imprinted into the biological systems that sustain us. Rhythm is composed of downtime as well as uptime, and when we don’t allow for downtime in our lives, illness becomes the only way to stop and take a break.
I’m not being overly dramatic in saying that. Not taking regular holidays significantly increases the risk of dying from a heart attack according to a study of 12,000 men published in Psychosomatic Medicine, 2000.
Australian surveys indicate that about a third of fulltime workers don’t stop for a lunch break, and about 40 percent don’t take all their annual leave.
It’s obvious isn’t it, why we don’t chill out more? We have so much to do and are way too busy!! OK, but that’s not the whole story. China is an example of a country full of ‘busy’ workers, yet it’s commonplace for the industrious Chinese to nap daily.
Many inter-related forces drive our busyness, ranging from economic and cultural to psychological. Together they can leave us thinking it’s way too hard or way too scary to try and push back against rest-less ways.
1.It’s way too hard because it’s countercultural: Regular stopping was once embedded into our weekly, monthly and yearly calendars. I can remember when walking out of the office marked the end of the day’s work, when Sundays equalled rest days and Christmas holidays stretched on for weeks, even months. That’s rare these days.
Unless rest breaks are part of our culture and ‘authorised’ and modelled by community leaders, it takes strength to swim against the tide and justify the extra weeks holiday, not checking emails at home or taking a full hour for lunch. We are affected by the phenomenon called ‘ entrainment” where our own rhythms are subsumed by the rhythm of the larger system in which we exist.
2. It’s way too scary because we have too much invested in ‘doing’: If we derive a good chunk of self-esteem from being a super-worker, doing less could equal less praise – so how do I get to feel valued and important anymore? I can remember taking many deep breaths before giving up my business in Melbourne to allow myself a long period of rest and renewal. During that time I realised just how much the protestant work ethic, that equates sound character and personal worth with work, had infiltrated my psyche.
3. Slowing down and stopping can also be scary because when we do come to stillness and reconnect with our bodies we can realise just how exhausted we really are. It feels more familiar, even comfortable, to keep running on adrenaline, which only makes relaxation and quality sleep even more elusive.
If you are interested in exploring rest-resistance to make more space for rhythms of renewal in your life, you could start by examining your own drivers of rest resistance. This helps us see that we do actually have some choice.
· Valuing downtime might be counter-cultural but you can create sub-cultures, including amongst family, friends and co-workers, that consciously shape healthier norms
· Saying “no” and extracting ourselves from extra commitments might threaten the self-esteem we derive from ‘doing’ but we can learn new ways to value ourselves.
· If we are too wired to rest because we are plain exhausted, we can consult health professionals to help re-set the nervous system establish supportive habits.
Most importantly savour the The Curly –Pyjama Letters of cartoonist Michael Leunig, which contains this sage advice: “Learn to curl up and rest – feel your noble tiredness – learn about it and make a generous place for it in your life and enjoyment will surely follow.”