In our accelerating world, we’re constantly being urged to ‘slow down’. Good advice in theory, but often it just feels like another item for the to-do list. Besides, even if you do manage to take a break, it can feel oddly stressful; your mind keeps racing, while new tasks build up. (In one famous study, sitting doing nothing made people so uneasy that many chose to give themselves mild electric shocks instead.) Slowing down won’t feel fun at first. But learning to tolerate that discomfort is the path to genuine rest. It’ll make you more focused at work, too.
How to make it happen
Clear the decks: Take a few minutes at the end of the working day to close the ‘open loops’. This needn’t entail lots of work: it might simply mean sending a couple of emails to colleagues. Otherwise, your brain will keep reminding you about them when you’re trying to go to sleep.
Exercise your patience muscle: If you’re the type who gets jumpy when you do something ‘relaxing’, make an effort to focus your attention on those feelings. Don’t try to eliminate them, just watch until they subside. You will strengthen your ability to concentrate, and to relax.
Structure your leisure: We think we want time off to ‘do whatever we like’, but research shows we’re happiest with more structured leisure plans. Take a class, or plan a specific activity with friends. You’ll be far less likely to regret wasting valuable downtime.
Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)