Last week at this time, I was on day five of a virus from hell. A little less than three weeks ago, I was in a doctor’s office learning that, according to some X-rays of my hip, I have an issue that requires a change to my workout regimen for the foreseeable future. And a few weeks before that, I’d had a stiff neck/pinch nerved – possibly related to having my alignment thrown off by the bum hip – that made it difficult to climb out of bed. What all of these ailments have in common, other than making me feel like I’m approximately one hundred years old, is they were, to some extent, preventable.
Given these circumstances, a normal person might think, “What am I doing that’s making me so physically vulnerable?” I, on the other hand, thought, “When will all this be over so I can get back to my normal, totally unrealistic, and probably unsustainable schedule?” At some point, maybe it was around day three of the virus, I knew it was time to abandon my mind-over-matter mindset and listen to what my body, my orthopedist, and the universe were trying to tell me. Assuming you’re less obtuse than I, you can probably see where this is going.
It’s time to slow down a bit. Not forever. But for a while. And probably time to come up with a more sustainable long-term approach that builds downtime into my plans.
So today I present myself as a cautionary tale. Behold what happens when you set up unmanageable expectations. I’ve spent the past nine months riding hellbound for leather to reach a multitude of goals in 2018. And I’ve met most of them, so yay! But follow my lead at your own peril, because you could break something. Quite literally.
If you do choose to make your own poor life choices, at least consider building in time for rest. That’ a little trick I’ve known about for years, but sadly overlooked these past several months. You can endure a lot, from extreme work schedules to high-intensity physical training, if you wield the secret weapon of rest. There are three main types to consider. Use all three and you could win a special prize, which includes not needing to see multiple doctors to fix what you’ve broken.
Behold the Magical Power of Sleep
We all know we need a good night’s sleep to do our best each day. But according to the CDC, at least one third of American adults aren’t getting it. And everyone experiences sleep disturbances and their accompanying problems at least some of the time. If you’re a chronic problem sleeper, it might be time to work on your sleep hygiene.
Set up your bedroom as a place of rest. Not another office. Not a place where you watch the news or indulge in social media. Make it shrine to sleep. Make it as dark and quiet as possible. And while you’re at it, turn off your screens at least half an hour before bed. (I’ve had to break the habit of e-reading right before bed and have rediscovered the joys of nodding off with an actual book in my hand.) There are lots of places to learn about sleep hygiene, but if you suspect you have bad habits that are sabotaging your sleep, you can start here.
You also might want to learn your sleep chronotype (I’m a dolphin, which will surprise absolutely no one who knows me IRL). You can then build your schedule around customized sleep/wake/activity guidelines. Or just observe your own sleep/wake/tiredness patterns. Keep a sleep journal. What bed and wake times make you feel most refreshed? How much sleep do you need to feel well and productive? What time of day do you need to stop working or at least take a break? The answers are all inside you, grasshopper, if you’re willing to look for them.
Rest Is Not Just for Nighttime
The goal for this type of rest break is not sleep. It’s mental rest, keeping your physical senses awake and in the moment while taking your mind away from whatever stresses you’re enduring. To get optimal benefit, you need to practice not just every night, but also every day. Take some time, even if it’s just a few minutes daily, to relax and pamper yourself.
You’ve heard about the benefits of meditation. If you struggle with incorporating it into your daily routine or find yourself falling asleep instead of resting your mind, guided meditation might work for you. I like the Bhuddify app, but there are lots of apps and Youtube videos to explore. If meditation really isn’t your bag, how about stepping outside (or at least looking outside) for twenty minutes at a time? Yes, that should be a minimum time. Set a timer if you must. And if neither of those options work for you, at least try a five-minute break where you lie on your back on the floor with your legs propped up the wall and your eyes closed. A weighted mask over your eyes can help you relax in this position.
If you also want some daytime shut-eye, a nap might not be a bad idea. Just consider using a timer for this as well (especially if you’re doing it behind your closed office door at the day job), and scheduling it so it doesn’t interfere with your nighttime sleep. If you’re a dolphin chronotype, though, naps probably aren’t in your best interest. Then again, if you’re a dolphin, you probably already know this about yourself.
Maybe It’s Time for a Vacation
We all know the importance of vacations for improving productivity and morale. Those outcomes (OK and labor laws) are the reasons most full-time employers offer vacation time as a benefit. Getting away from the daily grind for longer than overnight or a two-day weekend can do you a world of good.
You’re also familiar with this concept if you’ve done any kind of intensive physical training program. It’s often called, aptly enough, the rest week. It doesn’t mean you stop working out all together, but that you do shorter and lower-intensity workouts, and maybe fewer of them for a seven-day period. One rest week for every four to five high-intensity workout weeks seems to be a good rule of thumb.
But this one is tricky for creative types. If you’re a writer, let me ask you: when is the last time you spent an entire week (or writing gods forbid, two!) not writing? Not researching? Not cogitating and note-taking and plotting away in your diabolical little writer’s brain? For many of us, the answer is “I can’t remember such a time.” Especially if you’re working the DDJ (dreaded day job), vacation is just another name for the opportunity to write full-time for a week or two. Weekends are scheduled writing time. Even sick days are probably at least partially spent writing through whatever ails you. But just like forgetting to schedule your rest weeks during high-intensity training can result in injury (trust me on this), not taking downtime away from the writing to refill the creative well can make the process harder, less efficient, and certainly less enjoyable.
This is the time in my post about rest where goal-oriented Nancy, stubborn Nancy, bound-to-get-hurt Nancy would tell you to do as I say, not as I do. But in the interest of closing out 2018 on a healthier note, newly-enlightened Nancy will invite you to join me, especially during the end-of-year rush to finish All the Tasks and the pressure to participate in all kinds of holiday merry-making. Today, I challenge you to schedule some downtime for yourself. Step away from the writing for a few days. Start a daily meditation practice. Determine how you can make regular rest – and the rejuvenation and better health it brings with it – part of your life in 2019.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do. But first, I’m going to finish one more chapter in the book I’m pleasure reading, then center myself with a ten-minute meditation. Later today, I’m going to leave the house and actually enjoy Outside for 10-20 minutes. And tonight, I plan to turn off all the electronics by 10:30 and get to bed by 11. OK, maybe midnight. Like everything else worthwhile, it’s a process, people!