April 27, 2016

What we do with downtime really matters, and here's why.

There’s so much more to having a productive life than checking off a to-do list. Success is built upon a thousand small steps, and all the choices we make, conscious or not, that make us feel in control of what we are doing.

Most of our lives require a certain amount of self-motivation. The things we do in the early hours of the morning and the late hours of the evening help us prepare for success. Most people miss this, because these seem like ‘free’ hours that are inconsequential to our success. But these margins of the day are hugely important, and here’s why.

What we do in the morning before work sets the tone for our day. What we do late in the evening prepares us for the next day. This means, we should hold ourselves accountable for this time. Staying up too late, trying to cram more work in a day than is reasonable, or wasting our brain power on hours of mindless TV watching after work are all habits that have an effect on our productivity hours the next day.

We have the privilege of transforming our daily routines into life-giving rituals. What does this mean? Infusing the smallest of pleasures into things that would otherwise seem ordinary or menial. Creating a ritual that is uniquely ours, that brings meaning and focus to the upcoming day.

For example, many of us reach for our phones from the moment we wake up to browse work emails or social media. Research and our own experience suggests that our brains, when not following a script of what needs to happen next, resort to idling, distractions, and unimportant tasks to fill the time. We must beat our brains to the punch by developing a ritual, a track or behavior to follow that tells us what to do before the thought pops into our head: “I think I’ll browse Facebook for 15 minutes”, which in reality, turns into a half an hour.

Three questions to ask yourself before forming your morning or evening rituals:

  1. Does this activity require my willful participation? Or is it relaxing because it’s mind-numbing, encouraging me to check out mentally from my current reality?

  2. Does this activity remind me of my sense of purpose and encourage me to move toward it?

  3. Is this particular habit life-giving to me at this moment? Do I feel rested and energetic when I’m done?

Remember that it doesn’t have to be something monumental. Turning a routine into a ritual can be as simple as lighting a candle when you wake up, making yourself a hot cup of coffee and pouring it into a nice mug instead of hitting up the drive-thru Starbucks before work. It can look like sitting down at your kitchen table or in your favorite chair to read, pray, or meditate on something good for 15 minutes before you head to work.

The difference between these two habits is that one requires a sense of grateful anticipation for the coming day (taking time to make a great cup of coffee) while the other passively consumes a product (grabbing Starbucks)  in a hurry to get from A to B.

Don’t get me wrong. Some days are drive-thru days and we all get that. But the more intentional we can be at the start and end of our days, the closer we will be to reaching the goals that are most important to us.

Work out. Do something creative. Take a yoga class for stress-relief. Work on restoring an old car. Cook in your kitchen. Take an hour to make a dent in that book you’ve been wanting to read. Be human and center yourself on your sense of purpose again.  Don’t expect the time you commit to these things to be perfect or distraction free. The conditions will never be ideal! Just take them as they come: a chance to reach deeper and regain your focus for day or week ahead of you.

Dont pour out of an empty cup! Take your downtime for what it is, a wonderful gift to refuel and reenergize.

To your excellence in spending downtime the right way,

Coach Greg