Maximising Downtime


I’m signing out for Christmas today. At least, that’s what I’ve told myself. Now that I’m my own boss I can do that sort of thing – make arbitrary decisions about ‘leave’.

In actual fact, I’ve opted for today because that’s the day my next door neighbour is going on leave. She doesn’t realise it, but her action has in effect given me permission to do exactly the same thing.

Whether I will or not successfully switch off depends on a whole host of things which could easily get in my way. Anticipating what those blocks are and finding ways of overcoming them in the moment is crucial to maintaining peak-Christmas holiday bliss.

Posted below, is a selection of thinking, procedures, and interventions which help me forget work, slip into holiday mode and most importantly of all, remain there.

1. Define ‘work’

Defining what the boundaries are is a first step. For me, I regard any activity engaged directly or indirectly connected to revenue-gathering obligations or aspirations, as ‘work’. That’s not just the task that needs to be carried out or project completed in return for cold hard cash, but any associated thinking (useful or otherwise) around and about it.

Moments when I’m working extend to obsessing about things yet to happen, things not done, worrying about emails not responded to, or ruminations about the efficacy of a particular idea. You can add your own things to the list. A break from work is about steering clear of any of these habitual acts, implementing new or temporary habits accordingly.

2. Define ‘the ideal break’ 

Dream a bit. If everything was as you wanted it to be, what would your ideal break be like?

If I’m going to avoid submitting to the usual habits when on leave, identifying what I’m going to do with the resulting free time is important.

For me, that means allowing myself the time to read, maybe writing, watching a film without thinking about work, and not checking my phone every minute of every day. If I have any ideas, I’ll commit them to a notebook and come back to them later. There might be time for a spot of baking. Or a walk.

Relatively simple pleasures.

It’s about slipping effortlessly into festive stasis where walking down the road to get some milk from the nearby Coop is something akin to an expedition. I kid you not.

3. Who will make this a success?

That person is me. No one else.

4. what risks polluting your break?

Making a list at this point (or a sub-list if you’re being really pedantic) is a useful strategy. My list of irritants and interruptants is below:

i. Catastrophising about what might or might not happen in the future
ii. Believing that if I’m not being constructive I’m contributing to my own downfall
iii. Worrying about not having enough money
iv. Worrying about not having much booked in for March
v. Worrying about my pension; life assurance;
vi. Thinking about different ways to reduce outgoings

You get the idea, I’m sure. What are yours?

Here are a few recollections from my previous life as a full-time BBC inmate which might trigger similar thoughts for you.

i. “I’ve got to into the office next week because the boss insists over Christmas no-one is allowed to work from home (even though he was OK with it for the rest of the year); that’s going to ruin the holidays; the thought of it is ruining the holidays now.” (classic catastrophising)

ii. “I might get called by work to do something like an emergency update – I’ll keep checking my phone just in case there’s something else I could do.” (needing to complete work in order to gain validation from my employers – a case of diminishing returns – pointless)

iii. That bit of work I finished off before I left for leave – what if there’s a problem with it? Has someone emailed to complain about it? Do I need to follow up? (castastrophisation fuelled by questionable self-belief)

iv. Is there a bit of work I haven’t finished off that I forgot about? I should probably check my email. (ditto)

v. What if someone doesn’t call me over the Christmas break? Does that mean I’m basically surplus to their own needs and my services aren’t really valued? (needing actual work to validate me – unhelpful)

vi. Has anyone emailed to complain that I can’t really be suffering from gastric flu today and I should really be in the office? I should probably check my email. (castastrophisation fuelled by questionable self-belief)

It’s quite an embarrassing list. Pitiful. Let’s just draw this to a close.

5. Be aware

Noticing what’s going on at any given time during holiday is really important. This doesn’t mean going into a meditative state every hour of every day. It’s just about being aware when the thought processes are spiralling, working out whether they’re actually helpful or not in pursuit of the ultimate goal of breaking away from working life. Being aware need only be a case of running a quick check – no more than 5 or 10 seconds every so often. When you’re aware of what’s going on in any given moment, you can …

6. Deploy interventions

It’s taken me a while to realise that having an absence of work distractions whilst on leave isn’t a passive act: I have to proactively tackle the physical and mental distractions.

Sometimes I have to deploy my own personally built intervention to counter thoughts which distract from enjoying leave. Customary list below.

i. Remind myself that ‘thoughts are not facts’; thinking something doesn’t make it real
ii. Am I obsessing about something that is happening in the future or in the past?
iii. What is the actual benefit of ruminating about something that will happen in the future/past? I only have control over what’s going on now.
iv. If still ruminating, then I’ll give myself a further 7 seconds to obsess on the subject, on the basis that I commit to stopping after that.
v. Saying ‘I should be using this time to getting ahead on work’ is me guilting myself into work. Unhelpful.
vi. Managing boundaries of communication is my responsibility: make the out-of-office message clear.
vii. Just because I think what I’m working on is important to the ongoing existence of the human race, doesn’t mean it actually is.

7. Build a holiday habit

Actively engage in holidaying. Make a temporary habit of doing so.

i. Switch off alerts, sounds and the rest; switch off the phone; stick it in a drawer
ii. Actively engaging in different activities to subvert the unconscious routine established by everyday working patterns
iii. Commit to alternative activities for 15-minute chunks (this helps get the brain ‘in flow’)
iii. Be vigilant for any unhelpful rumination and deploy counter-measures accordingly (see personal interventions)
iv. When being vigilant, build a habit that notices rather than resists unwelcome thinking

What I understand now better now 18 months after leaving full-time employment is that downtime is vitally important to recharge my batteries. By doing so I gain a different (potentially less fraught) perspective on the challenges ahead.

That time off – even if its just a couple of days – is therefore sacrosanct. It’s crucial to my future effectiveness that I rest. Resting doesn’t necessarily mean staying in bed until 2pm, eating chocolate, munching on a party pack of Doritos while you binge-watch a boxset (though sometimes it does).

The biggest risk to my free time being polluted by work is succombing to the thoughts and feelings that I have about it. Maximising downtime doesn’t only mean eliminating unhelpful distractions, but also introducing new more supporting ones, even if it’s only temporarily. That’s about changing habits. Changing habits isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

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