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5 Ways to make downtime when you’re completely swamped

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Breaks are literal life-savers, but you can’t just wait for them to happen

“I don’t have a minute!” That’s a complaint on just about everyone’s lips, especially at this time of year. We know, from years of studies, that downtime is critically important to our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. But that knowledge doesn’t do us much good when the waters of our day are up to our necks. Here are some suggestions for ways to carve out downtime – even in slivers – from the busiest of days.

1. Start every day with prayer.

You’ve heard it before. “People who say they have no time to pray need to pray most of all.” There’s a wonderful paradox here: Prayer makes time. Being faithful to prayer time at the beginning of the day – building it into your schedule, reclaiming it even when the schedule falls apart, which it will – is truly the best thing you can do to drain the swampiness of your days from the get-go. Time for you and God can be as formal or informal, as brief or prolonged as you can manage, and can take any of a million shapes. What’s important is that you accept this daily gift from God. Like a good breakfast, morning prayer will sustain you all day long, focusing your priorities and providing a well of internal peace to drink from when things get hot and frantic. You won’t believe it until you try it (I didn’t) – and then you’ll wonder what you did without it.

2. Switch up your activities.

My grandmother used to say “A change is as good as a rest,” and I’ve finally figured out she was right. Downtime doesn’t necessarily have to be do-nothing time. Regularly switching what you do, even for short intervals, gives your body, mind, and soul a gear-shift that refreshes. If you’re at a desk all day, use an app like Tomato Timer to program reminders to get up and walk around the office or the block, dance-like-nobody’s-watching, do a few yoga stretches, or stare out a window at a bigger horizon. Change from active to quiet (from housecleaning to reading to a child, for example). Move between indoors and outdoors. Vary your tasks between those you can do by rote and those that require more effort and thought. My grandmother knew it: switching activities can work even better than taking an hour off and feeling guilty about it.

3. Don’t be afraid to delegate.

Many hands make light work – another of my grandmother’s maxims. To free up more downtime in a busy day, allow yourself to hand off what you can, to ask for help, and to refuse (politely, but without the need for excuses or guilt) to take on more than you can do. Much of the stress of our busyness comes from perfectionism and a false sense that we’re irreplaceable in everything. No, the kids will not empty the dishwasher the “right way” or pass the white-glove test of room cleaning. No, your assistant won’t do the job the way you would. But the more we can let go the need to seem like superheroes, the more super and heroic we’ll actually be. Make it a practice to take a break whenever you hand off; you’ve earned it.

4. See and seize the opportunities.

You know those people who stretch out on the floor in the airport and take a quick catnap when the flight’s delayed? Be like them. Don’t allow the chance to breathe, stretch, laugh, or shut your eyes to pass you by. Learn to see downtime opportunities in unexpected places: that blissful alone time in the bathroom when the toddler finally naps, the long lines in the supermarket, the wait for soccer practice to end, the eternity on hold with the insurance or cable company.

5. Power down at the end of the day.

You can’t make downtime during the day if you haven’t given yourself the downtime of sleep. The demands of children, second-shift jobs, overtime, rising levels of insomnia and stress, and just plain swamp spillover have made nightmares of our nights. Within the constraints of your life, though, you can – you must – take steps to power down. Disconnecting from the digital world for a period of at least an hour before bedtime is vital; longer is better, for you and your whole family. Put work aside; you will come to it fresher after real rest. Recover the downtime joys of an after-dinner walk, a board game, a good book, a hot bath. Limit yourself to one episode of that series you’re streaming – and none at all if it’s going to get your adrenaline pumping. If you still have trouble relaxing into sleep, try an old Catholic remedy: start a rosary, consciously turning over your day to Mary’s loving care. Don’t worry about falling asleep in the middle. As my wise grandmother taught me, your Guardian Angel will finish it for you.

Share your own secrets for making downtime in the Comments!

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