Productivity & quality down time: they go hand in hand

In honor of Labor Day, I’m posting a rerun and am taking a quick break from writing. This post was first written on December 3, 2008, and I thought it was a good topic for today. Enjoy the holiday!

While I was waiting for a prescription to be filled at my local pharmacy today, I read this quote on a greeting card from Lin Yutang: “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.”

I love this. I write 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.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate truly quality down time. I don’t do this perfectly, but I’ve learned it really is so important to STOP. To just relax. To just be. To not always produce.

Moms especially 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.

But of all people, we 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.

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

How to Have Quality “Nothing” Time

Photo by Jon in Knoxville

1. 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.

2. 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 almost never happens. 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.

3. Turn off your distractions.

There are so many blogs 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.

4. 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).

5. 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.

6. Turn off that voice 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

Photo by Daniel Lobo

• 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 kids, 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?

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  1. Angela @ Homegrown Mom

    This is such great timing. I had surgery a month ago and I kept exclaiming to my mom and husband how weird it was that I was totally fine doing absolutely nothing. So out of character for me, and I’m so glad it happened because I have learned to daydream again, sit and be still and be fine NOT accomplishing anything for a while. It was awesome and now that I’m pretty close to full recovery, I plan to keep practicing the down time for a long time to come!

  2. Alison @ Femita

    Like Angela said, it’s often so that something has to happen first before we realize how important it is to take good care of ourselves. For me, the recent death of my grandmother was a major turning point. It came completely unexpected and it forced me to take a break. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel guilty for talking long walks without destination, sitting by the lake without something useful to read or spending time with my loved ones in a “perfectly useless manner”. We can all learn from sad experiences, as they tend to point out priorities.

  3. Martine

    Thanks for this timely entry! It’s definitely appropriate for what I’m going through now. Every point just made perfect sense, especially after the flurry of house-moving. I can’t seem to stop thinking of the bazillion things that need to be done. You’ve reminded me to take everything in stride because everything WILL get done. I’m learning to prioritize the really important things, such as attending to the needs of my family over getting the chores done. Hello, we’ve only been living here two days; there’s still a whole chunk of time to get settled in. I have to remind myself that only one more room needs fixing up and all will be over. But I shouldn’t stress over it too much!

  4. HereWeGoAJen

    My daughter was born the day you posted this for the first time!

  5. Jennie

    The best downtime for me is when we get out in nature- boating and hiking. Usually there is no cell service and we can just be! We are not at home so it is impossible to do anything but enjoy the beauty and enjoy each other. I love it!

  6. Candy

    Like all ur other posts, I loved this one. I think we underestimate and just plain simply forget how important this is and how wonderful it feels afterwards. I just finished a novel – for MYSELF. not a book on Potty training or baby signing or baby games but a grown up adult novel and loved it and after doing so- am going to make it a point to treat myself with something like this every month!

  7. Sarah Clachar


    Great post. But one thing you left out of discussing why down time is so important. Downtime is when our subconscious works to really be creative and solve problems. I find I’m always doing doing doing – but when I take a step back and muse, daydream, just reflect while sitting, I have enormous breakthroughs in understanding priorities, how to approach a problem, etc.

    It’s like the busy ant who is so busy near the ground, you can’t see anything else except your immediate task. Take a break and get up on a perch and you’ll see things from a whole new perspective.

  8. Mindy

    It’s so funny to read this now, because that is exactly what I’m doing! I have laundry to do, dinner to make and carpets that need vacumming, but I’m focusing on my downtime to have the energy to do these tasks wholly in the next half hour or so. Thank you for the validation!

  9. Melanie at Parenting Ink

    Sounds perfect!
    Right now, I have the kettle on, the bath running, a glass of wine ready, and a good book on the side of the tub (Alexandra Fuller’s The Legend of Colton H. Bryant).
    After a day of hide and seek, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and coloring pages, I deserve the downtime!

  10. Hannah

    Great points. I actually got to experience some true “down time” recently when my MIL offered to take my kids for a night and a day. I did get some stuff done, but I also blocked off time to take a friend to lunch I hadn’t seen for a while and then go to a natural spring in our city and just read a good book. It felt delightfully decadent! 🙂

  11. Tab

    Hardest part?? Turning off my overactive brain to just BE in the moment and rest without doing, doing, doing.
    Favorite things to do?? Have a cuppa tea or coffee and look at a magazine…call my grandmother…make a card…look at old family photos.
    I am learning how to BE more and DO less. I am surely the Martha from the Bible! I have to “force myself” not to multi-task and not to work even in my rest. Even when I read, I feel guilty if it isn’t going to improve my life somehow–plain ol’ fiction just for the fun of it is a rare treat.
    I am going to take this post to heart. My husband and I are simplifying our lives and moving into a smaller house to save money, etc. etc…..and I am going to be intentional about having more downtime…REAL down time!!
    Thanks for this!!!!!

  12. Janna @ Mommy's Piggy TALES - Record Your Youth

    I’ve spent the better part of the weekend doing “nothing” and was beginning to feel really guilty about it all. Thanks for heading off the guilt with your post.

  13. Tabitha (From Single to Married)

    I completely agree – you have to have some down time. Even on the days that my husband works late, he has to unwind before coming to bed, he can’t just turn off on command. We all need that in some way, a time to unwind, even if it’s just for five minutes!

  14. Janmary, N Ireland

    I LOVE the thought of scheduling it in! I usually just hope I can squeeze some in, but then never quite seem to manage it.

  15. Jenna

    Great post! For me it’s reading and sleeping. I think the hardest part of me is scheduling down time and then being okay with having down time. I tend to feel like I should be productive all the time and am just learning how to be okay with not being “on” all the time.

  16. Paula

    Oh my goodness! I did a similar post this morning because I got “caught” by my mother’s friends (in their 80’s) who wanted me to join their knitting group for my downtime! 🙁 I quickly decided to create a list of things I would do with my time alone. I should have waited a few days for your post! =) Thanks so much for the info and I hope you are enjoy a nice break!

  17. Mandy June

    I love nothing time! It’s those lazy Sunday afternoons that I enjoy so much. Often times my coworkers will ask me Monday morning, “What’d you do yesterday?” and I’ll reply, “Nothing.” But just saying that nothing and realizing that I did nothing, although unproductive, actually felt really good. Nothing time’s my favorite time to wind down the weekend.

  18. Amanda Darlack

    One of my favorite ways to have downtime is to have a pajama day. I nap, read a book, and don’t go anywhere. Just having the solitude is rejuvenating for me.

  19. Leah

    I could not agree more with this post! I’m new to the stay-at-home-mom scene (darling baby girl is 4.5 months), and just yesterday I was bemoaning the fact that I feel like I have to account for each minute with some sort of productive task–cleaning, laundry, etc. It’s hard to remind myself that mothering IS work, and that even if all I get done is to comfort my sweet girl, it would be a day well spent. If taking care of kids wasn’t work, people wouldn’t have to pay someone else to do it!

  20. Jenn @ Beautiful Calling

    Turning off the “voice” that says I must be productive is one of the biggest challenges for me…or at least ignoring said voice!

  21. Jeri Graybill

    Just Be….Thanks for the reminder.

  22. Jo-Anne DeGiacomo Petrie

    Hmmmmmmm. Quieting the mind, allowing yourself and others the gift of time? So often we adults need permission to take this time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone who loves us would tell us to take a “time out”. The benefits would be terrific! Thin of how productive that battery charge would be!

    In my classroom of 20 Pre-K students, I give the children I teach that gift most days before lunch departure. I ask the children to “alligator” ( lay on their tummies) or “turtle” (lay on their back). During this time, I shut the lights out, put soft meditative music on, and let the children know I will be coming to each and everyone of them to give a part of their body (head, heart, tummy thighs, calves, or feet) some reiki or “energy”.
    The children understand this is a quiet, respectful time that is to bring quiet closure to the morning where they can just “be”.
    The children and parents are thankful to my for this break (all of 12 minutes) I give their children to stop the merry-go-round environment we all live in.
    Think of ending your morning with a 12 minute relaxation break – it is not over rated!

  23. Julia

    Love this 7 thank you so much for giving some examples. As ahead teacher I didn’t know what down time was! now I’m retired I’m still finding it difficult. Love your blog too!

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