Productivity & quality down time: they go hand-in-hand

relaxing in a hammock
Photo by Vanda Novodomszky

While I was waiting for a prescription to be filled at my local pharmacy today, I read this quote on a greeting card:

“If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.” – Lin Yutang

I love this. I write a lot about productivity and about the importance of making the most of your time, but the idea of quality “nothing” time is just as crucial as productive time. In fact, I think the two go together. When you work hard, relaxing is all the more enjoyable.

Remember your college days, when you’d have that sinking feeling in your stomach when you knew you should be studying? I sure do. I would procrastinate on those projects I dreaded, waiting until the last minute to really put my nose to the grindstone. I might have produced quality work under pressure, but all that time leading up to “crunch time” was miserable. I never really did enjoy vegging in front of the TV, because my subconscious was constantly nagging me, saying, “Tsh… that paper… just do it. It’ll be less painful to get it over with now.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate truly quality down time. I don’t do this perfectly, being the recovering perfectionist and burgeoning entrepreneur that I am… but it really is so important to STOP. To just relax. To just be. To not always produce.

We moms have a hard time with this, because the to-do list never ends. As soon as you fold the last bit of laundry, another t-shirt gets thrown into the hamper. After breakfast, it’s only a few hours until lunch. If you sit down for a few minute’s rest, your preschooler comes to you crying with a new owie. Heck, just vying for some solitude in the bathroom doesn’t work for me – I like to count “mississippily” how many seconds it takes for my daughter to find me and knock on the door. It’s usually four to five.

But of all people, we home managers need to go out of our way for some quality down time. If we don’t, we burn out, plain and simple. And if we burn out, anything from the trivial to the serious could happen – the house could really go by the wayside, making it that much harder to clean in the end. Or much worse, we could end up risking our health. At the very least, our home stops being a haven, both for us and for everyone who lives with us.

The key is, our downtime needs to be quality – and by that, I mean unproductive. I mean, it needs to be truly downtime. Sure, you can happen to get something done when you’re resting. But the goal of your downtime shouldn’t be productivity, because your wheels will continue to spin when they should be getting serviced.

How to Have Quality “Nothing” Time

It takes effort to make your down time worth the time it takes. Here are a few ways to make it more purposeful:

• Schedule it in. Sounds counterintuitive, I know, but if you’re like me, you’ll work-work-work right through any well-intentioned down time. Before you know it, your down time was “catch up” time instead.

• Work hard when it is work time. Like in college, you’ll enjoy your down time more when you’ve truly had a good day of quality work. I don’t mean you need to cross off your to-do list completely before you rest – that will never happen. But make sure you focus on work during work time, instead of intermingling work and play. In other words, when you’re on the computer to work on your family budget and balance your accounts, don’t read blogs at the same time. Finish your work, then sit down later to read blogs exclusively. It’ll be more fun.  Overall, I prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking.

• Turn off your distractions. There are so many blog posts out there I want to read, but sometimes, they’ll just need to go unread because I’d rather enjoy my downtime offline. I work online, so when I’ve had a full day in front of the screen, I just need to close the laptop. The beauty of the internet is that most things will stick around for awhile. There’s no blog-reading emergency.

Know yourself. If you’re an introvert, do what you can to get some alone time to refuel. If you’re an extrovert, see what you can do to grab coffee with a group of girlfriends.  I don’t like to put myself in a box, but forms of the DISC test and the Myers-Briggs/Jung test can be insightful (I’m an “idealist” and a borderline “INTJ” and “ENTJ,” in case you were wondering).

Nurture your essential relationships. Go on a relaxing date with your spouse. Business meetings are great when you need to discuss important family issues, but those usually don’t count as quality down time. Bowling with your husband can be just as important as a sit-down meeting where you discuss your life goals.

• Turn off that American voice inside you that says “you MUST be productive.” One thing I’ve learned from the culture in which I live is that relationships are more important than efficiency. I didn’t realize how much I rely on my being productive until I moved overseas. Even in our downtime, we work so hard that we simply forget what it means to “just be.” Sure, you may enjoy sewing. But if you decide to sew in order to finish that project, not because it relaxes and refuels you, then that’s simply not down time. That’s productive time. Don’t worry about wasting time. Just be.

A Few Ways to Have “Nothing” Time

relaxing in the flowers
Photo by Jon in Knoxville

• take a nap

• call an old friend, and just catch up – and don’t do anything else while you’re on the phone

• read an enjoyable book you’ve been meaning to read

• take a bubble bath after the kids are in bed

• watch a movie with your spouse, and don’t work on anything else (this is a tough one for me… I hate just sitting there)

• grab coffee with a girlfriend

• read some blogs

• head to a bookstore-with-coffee-shop and browse just for fun

• cultivate a new craft – learn how to knit or dance for the heck of it

• snuggle on the couch with your spouse and reminisce about when you were dating

• make a cup of tea, sit out on your porch, and just… sit

• go on a leisurely walk, either alone or with your family – and go nowhere in particular

When you have really good nothing time, your something time is all the better. You’ll feel recharged, you’ll appreciate your kiddos, and you’ll remember why you love your life in the first place. Sometimes, you just need a break from work to help you be a better worker at home. Or anywhere, really.

What’s your favorite way to have down time? What’s the hardest part about finding down time in your life? I’m looking forward to reading your comments.

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  1. Marvyn

    I think the hardest part about having downtime is finding the time for it. It’s not until everybody is tucked in and fast asleep do I find myself with time to do nothing — and by nothing I mean sitting in front of the TV with a bag of Cheetos in one hand and a XBOX 360 controller in another.

    But with the recent economic downswing, I find myself having more and more downtime, which is both good and bad.

    Marvyn´s last blog post…Cloth Diapers: To Use? Or Not to Use?


    So beautifully and well said, Tsh! As much as I adore early morning, I have found I love the end of the day more because it’s the only time I feel like I can really truly let myself have down time and turn off being mom for a little while and enjoy something for myself. Early morning, I am still thinking of where we have to, what we’re going to do, and anticipating baby feet at any moment. At night, I can sit in the silence, knowing it will last at least a couple of hours and I can shut off and just have time for me. My favorite things to do for down time are to enjoy a hot cup of tea, read a few blogs, chat with friends, or even do a craft project just for me. Last night, it was me, a cup of tea and a project I haven’t seemed to be able to get started with the kids and it felt so great just to feel slowed down. I know to some all this “slow down”, “take time”, “enjoy” seems either lazy or impossible but I find myself craving it because when I have it, I come back to the things I need to do rejuvenated and more productive, just like you’ve said.

    This is the end of my novel-long comment 🙂´s last blog post…A Mug of Hot Chocolate Cake

  3. Krista

    the hardest part about downtime for me is finding it. my husband is a pastor, and our life is usually very busy in relation to church things. we both struggle with making time to do something relaxing or fun.

    when i have downtime, i love to read, knit,and cross stitch (i always have a few unfinished pieces to work on). if i can get out of the house, i enjoy going to a book store and just smelling the smell of books… if i ever have a job outside of the house i hope it’s in a bookstore!

    Krista´s last blog post…Advent Conspiracy – something to think about

  4. Lucie @ Unconventional Origins

    I agree with Emily – beautifully said! And in some cases embarrassingly accurate. I am still a student myself, in the midst of finals, cramming in a semester’s worth of work that I put off all semester. But did I enjoy the time I spent putting it off? Not really!

    I think it is very hard for Americans to “just be” and I try to bring that into my life. One thing I do is if I have, lets say a 2 hour break at home between classes, instead of trying to squeeze in a few things off my to-do list I instead give myself complete permission to just enjoy spending some time with my almost-one-year-old. Or no matter how much work I have during the day, when it is late at night my fiance and I watch one TV show together we recorded previously – and we do nothing else.

    Great reminder on taking some time for ourselves!

    Lucie @ Unconventional Origins´s last blog post…Tis’ The Season – Unconventional Gift Ideas

  5. Havana

    How true! I remember this one Sunday, my fiance and I just spent the *entire* day in bed: sleeping, eating, talking, cuddling, and .. well. 😉 It was a completely frivolous day– we called it our “sloth and lust day”– and that Monday after, WOW. I was extremely focused and productive; I even managed to do 2-3 days’ worth of studying in each of my subjects! 🙂

    I too highly recommending such a day to everyone.

  6. make art every day

    i am finally learning that some nights i just need to get in bed and read. trying to slog through more work just to “get ahead” is completely UNproductive.

    and btw, i’m an I/ENTJ too.

    make art every day´s last blog post…December photo-a-day.

  7. simplemom

    I agree with everyone – finding the downtime is really difficult. It takes very proactive scheduling and planning. And least that’s the only way I can find some! 🙂

  8. Kendra@Shopping for Two

    Oh, Simplemom, I totally agree with you! I preached this over and over when I was working in an office with a couple of workaholics. They stayed late until all hours and complained how they never got anything done. I always kept strict to my 8-5 schedule (with a lunch outside the office) and always got everything done. I think it’s because of all that at home down time I got that when I got into the office I really was super productive. It’s a harder concept for me to apply at home being that I can’t leave it and go kick up my feet somewhere else. I’m working on it though. Thanks for this post. I really appreciate someone acknowledging that taking it easy regularly makes you a more productive person in the end.

    Kendra@Shopping for Two´s last blog post…10 Tips on How to Function After a Nearly Sleepless Night

  9. Turtle

    Really nicely put! In all honesty my down time, when i am truly relaxed and not thinking of my to do list would be when i am scuba diving or hiking. My mind is completely relaxed in the surroundings and anture always relaxes me. lol, does that count as down time?

    Turtle´s last blog post…where has the year flown to?

  10. FishMama

    Thanks for an insightful plug for “turning off.” You pegged me so well. I work during playtime and play during worktime. A little voice has been nudging me to compartmentalize a little more, and this post was an effective echo. Thanks.

    FishMama´s last blog post…Dinner Kit Hacks – They Work For Me!

  11. LaToya

    My favorite thing for downtime is a nice relaxing bath w/ soft music, climbing in bed with a good book, and then falling asleep for 8 hours straight.

    That said the hardest part of finding downtime is finding time for it. I’m a full-time law student as well as mommy of a 2.5 year old and 2 month old. And with a husband that may as well be on the other side of the universe for all the help that he is, I’m basically single parenting 99.9% of the time. I don’t have time to get basic housework done. I usually find myself scrambling to clean dishes and wash a few clothes once the boys go to bed.

    I’m trying to employ a system like your daily docket that works for me so that I can have more time for my children and myself admist all the choas of life.

  12. Writer Dad

    I used to be a LOT better at this. Since I started working online, I’ve deteriorated an embarrassing amount. I have my first two week vacation in my whole entire life scheduled for the end of the year, and I plan to pencil in a whole lot of diddly.

    Writer Dad´s last blog post…Writer Dad in Rough Draft

  13. Sarah H.

    Thanks for the encouragement! My husband and I have been trying to schedule more down time on Sundays. I’m not a nap taker in general, but I have found that short 45 minute naps on Sunday afternoon are so refreshing!! I also do much of my leisure reading on Sunday and since we’ve sort of designated Sundays has a leisure day, I don’t feel guilty about it.

    Sarah H.´s last blog post…Eight tips to help you survive decorating your house for Christmas this year

  14. Thankful

    My mom is always reminding me that I’m a human being, not a human doing. That little phrase seems to help force me to not attempt constant productivity. (Considering I inherited her love of having 80 bazillion projects at once, this is slightly hilarious.)

  15. bee

    “relationships are more important than efficiency”… I need to write that 100 times on the blackboard!

    bee´s last blog post…A Simple Christmas

  16. Shannon

    The hardest part of finding downtime is that I never feel caught up…I need to learn how to be at easy with not being “caught up” because in reality, I never will be.

    My favorite way to free my mind is on the lacrosse field, but I can only find leagues in the spring, summer and fall so that leaves the long cold winter with my stuck and restless!

    I need to find a “winter” outlet!

    Shannon´s last blog post…Updates: Behind in my blogging

  17. joan

    We work hard all week so we can put on our college football blinders on Saturdays. Hook ’em.

    I love the “Just to be” part… Emerson said that too.

    joan´s last blog post…My Scientific-ness.

  18. Mommy2Twinkies

    This was a great post, and very well said! I don’t always feel like I get enough downtime, but you’re right that it needs to be scheduled in. Thanks for reminding me that! My favorite way to relax is to read a book (preferably on the beach, but that doesn’t happen often!–but with a cup of tea works almost as well!)

    Mommy2Twinkies´s last blog post…Our Christmas Jar

  19. V. Higgins

    I’m still figuring out my best down time. My energy levels are really low so I’ll take any sleep I can get 😛 I love weekends with my DH, we sleep in as much as our bodies let us (we normally get up around 5, so sleeping in until 7 is lucky), and we’re trying to make it a habit to cuddle before moving out of the room. Then I usually make Dutch Babies (thanks for the recipe!!) while he plays on the 360, we don’t do much of anything until at least 10 or 11, I love it. 🙂 With the holidays, we’re now spending a lot of time in the living room with only the Christmas lights on and just relaxing together, great memories! 😀

  20. Genesis

    Great post and so true. This month, that`s particularly hard advice to follow, though! My husband is gone almost all month (7 days at home) and I am swamped with work while trying to keep the house clean and watch two toddlers! It`s a bit insane, but I try to spend some time each night watching a chick flick or reading a book that I have been wanting to sit down with for more than ten seconds at a time.

  21. Tracie

    I love going to a bookstore, sitting quietly, and reading a gossip magazine. It’s my peaceful time! I also try to schedule time away from my house about once a month to scrapbook with friends. I get a lot done and enjoy remembering some fun times with my family!

    Tracie´s last blog post…More Farm Shots

  22. Lisa

    Is it a bad sign that I’m getting antsy thinking of doing nothing? LOL. True downtime is hard for me. If I ever do stop producing, it’s because I’ve totally spun out/exhausted myself and I have to crash – which totally doesn’t count as downtime. Probably my favorite means of taking a real break is grabbing coffee with a friend or an after-the-kids-are-in-bed movie date with my husband. We have one planned for this Friday, in fact. Now, if I can just keep from wrapping presents while we watch… 😉
    (I’m an ENTJ too!)

  23. Jenni at My Web of Life

    I love how all of my favorite blogs always seem to follow the same train of thought. We all must be connected psychically! I had just written a post yesterday about making sure to take the time to relax during the hectic holidays to do something as simple as yoga or taking a walk. At the point that you don’t think you possibly have time to do it is exactly the time that you should do it!

    Your post is very timely and I just wanted you to know that I really enjoy reading your blog!

    Jenni at My Web of Life´s last blog post…‘Tis the Season to…breathe deeply and say ‘Ommmm’

  24. Laine

    Lately I have felt so burnt out and just cranky and “blah.” The day after Thanksgiving I was really thinking about running out to just one store for the Black Friday deals. My husband, who had to work that day, was just like, “Why don’t you just stay home and relax and play with the kids. Cancel school and just have fun.” So we did. On Saturday we didn’t do a whole lot either. I must say, I haven’t felt this refreshed in a LONG time.

    It is really hard for me to just sit down and do nothing. Thankfully, my husband encourages me to just relax and that is a blessing. I’d probably be a frazzled mess without him! =)

    Laine´s last blog post…Homemade Breadsticks

  25. Livvy

    I’ve just found this blog & am really enjoying it! I had a “lightbulb” moment reading about introvert vs. extrovert. The other day was kind of rough for me (the introvert). All I wanted to do was relax & veg with some Facebook time & my husband (the extrovert) decided it would be best for me to get out and “not sulk”. I couldn’t describe it to him but I was mentally exhausted by the time we came home & now I know why! There are different ways that we can define “relaxing” and that’s okay.

  26. gina

    One of my favorite ways to have down time. . .down time these days is
    with my husband and kids usually on a weekend. I love making a big pot of soup. Watching the kids play, lying on the couch, reading the paper. Sometimes we need a day to just do nothing but “be”.

  27. Pam

    I enjoy reading your blog as I’ve always valued simplicity, organization, and money management in my own life. This post was great because sometimes organization, productivity, and even creativity can become idols in our lives and actually make our days more stressful for ourselves and those around us. Downtime is just one thing that I think is so important in creating balance. I like to have some of my free time planned … date nights, etc., but I also like to be spontaneous/flexible and easy on myself. Keep up the great writing and may God continue to bless you.

  28. Stephanie

    Thanks for this post. I have been thinking lately about balancing family, work and downtime. It is so important to be able to get away from it all for a little while.
    My favorite thing lately is getting together for coffee with a friend and having a good chat about life’s questions, even if we don’t have the answers.
    As a mom of three, downtime is really difficult to come by, but I have found myself making time for it out of necessity (I don’t want to go crazy! 🙂 I usually beg hubby for a couple of hours of “free” time.
    P.S. I can totally relate to your lack of bathroom privacy! One Missippi….two

  29. Dena

    It’s interesting that you wrote this post today because last night my husband and I watched an episode of Andy Griffith. It was called, “Man in a Hurry”. It was about a man whose car broke down on Sunday outside of Mayberry and he was stuck in town at Andy’s house for the whole day. He was an executive and couldn’t stop pacing. I watched their peaceful life and decided last night that that’s what I want. So I woke up earlier today and went to bed earlier last night and I’m figuring out, today, how to do this. I feel like your blog is God seconding my idea to have a peaceful life instead of a hurried one. A life full of “things” is not how God intended our lives to be, I think. It’s a relaxing thought in itself to think that He intended for us to relax. Thank you for this post. (Great ideas on how to do it, too.)

  30. Emma

    This post is exactly what I needed today. It explains perfectly why I am feeling frustrated, can’t get anything done and in general am unhappy with my life. Like you, I value productivity. A lot. Probably too much. Unlike you, I struggle to find the balance.

    It’s just that making quality time is creating more work for me – but I will try, because I trust you when you say it’s worth it. Thanks Tsh, I will try to remember why I loved my life – before I kinda started hating it.

    Emma´s last blog post…Link Love: What I’ve learned about kids and parents this week

  31. Nicki

    Thanks Tsh, this is spot on for me. It’s hard to stop and just be, but so so important.

    Nicki´s last blog post…A Wreath and a Tree

  32. Faerylandmom

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post, though it’s something I’m still learning. I still tend to do that college thing, where I do my down time to avoid work…but now that I have my own household notebook *wink*, I’m getting far better at scheduling.

    And I have found that falling into bed at night exhausted can be a wonderful feeling – with all that hard work behind me, I feel like I actually deserve to fall into bed a little early!

    Faerylandmom´s last blog post…You’re Invited: Pity Party Tonight!

  33. Sara

    I’ve always thought, How can we know ourselves if we don’t take time to reflect? I’m not good at this…..but having a small baby has made me slow down, and I’ve found more times for reflection about my feelings, thoughts, interests, friendships, beliefs, etc. Now, how do I make time for this as life gets more hectic as this baby grows so fast???? That is the big question.

    Sara´s last blog post…Peace on Earth

  34. Shelly

    I don’t think I’ve really had any down time since having my kids (the oldest is 18). I’m always doing something or planning on doing something. We have a ranch, four kids, and a huge variety of animals. There’s just too much to do and not enough hours in the day to get it all done.

    Shelly´s last blog post…Homemade Christmas Gifts From The Heart

  35. tara

    I love this post. I have learned out of necessity how important down time is. My husband is a deployed soldier, and I am the temporary single mother of three little ones while he is away. Without making myself take the time to do nothing, I cannot function as the wife and mother I need to be right now. My favorite “do nothings” are bubble baths, reading, and blogging. If I’m lucky I can get enjoy all three in one evening.

  36. smilinggreenmom

    It is so true that sometimes single tasking is much better than multi-tasking. I never seem to get anything done because I am always only accomplishing part of it due to juggling 5 other things!!! Well said 🙂 I really do need to make more time for myself. THanks for the reminder!

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