How to Make Time for Yourself, According to Science

We’re conditioned to be go-go-go. And it’s bad for our health. So how do we slow down and log some vital me time?

I rarely have no weekend plans. Between household chores, a laundry list of errands and work left over from the week, the possibility of sleeping in and abandoning my phone feels like a distant dream. I often tell myself that next weekend I’ll pick up a scone or two and spend hours on the couch sipping coffee and reading a book.

I’m hardly the only one desperate for quiet downtime. So why is it so hard to come by? In North America, busyness is celebrated and overachievement is a marker of success. Doing more is a sign of efficiency. We have accepted that it’s OK to always be on the go and feel guilty if we’ve not checked off a to-do list—even though time to relax is crucial for our mental and emotional well-being. Research shows that “me time” helps regulate emotions, boosts mood and allows us to recharge.

What’s more, health experts warn abandoning self-care can lead to burnout, stress and mental health issues. That makes sense. For a lot of people, the pandemic threw a harsh light on the consequences of prioritizing work at the expense of everything else. “Our society evolved to this time where our culture is hyper-productive and hyper-social,” says Thuy-vy Nguyen, an assistant professor of psychology at Durham University in the United Kingdom who researches the effects of solitude. “Now, this topic [of me time] is something that people are curious about.”

So how do we find time for ourselves when we know it’s central to our well-being, yet so much of our modern life conspires against it? First, we need to rethink the very notion of time.

A photo of a clock with the two hands tied together by a red string, intended to portray the difficulty of making timeImage: Paul Weeks

Western society is obsessed with managing—and optimizing—time. From “lunch and learn” workshops to quick HIIT sessions between meetings, how we use our spare time has become a marker of constant self-improvement. Despite time tracking apps and endless self-help books on how to be better at time management, one thing is clear: Many of us feel like we still don’t have enough of it. Part of this may be due to how we think about time.

Clocks tick away, measuring the hours, minutes and seconds that pass, but our internal sense of time—that is, how we perceive it—is not so clear cut. Our emotions, in particular, play a role. Time flies when we’re seeing a friend, while getting a cavity filled feels like an eternity. Likewise, the dread and anxiety that many of us have felt over the past 20 months have left us emotionally depleted and time warped. As days become months and workdays seep into evenings, it’s no wonder we feel like time no longer belongs to us.

(Related: “For Me, Self-Care Is Self-Compassion”

We might also overestimate how busy we really are. Author Laura Vanderkam, who has written half a dozen books on time management, has found through her research that people tend to view their busiest weeks as typical, in part because negative experiences are more memorable than positive ones. (Of course, being busy isn’t always a bad thing, but when it’s associated with stress it can be negative.) That could make it easier than expected to carve out downtime and prevent work or tasks from swallowing you whole.

The Pomodoro technique is a time management tactic that breaks down any activity into 25-minute chunks followed by a short break of five or so minutes. Popularized in the late 1980s by Italian software product manager Francesco Cirillo, the practice says that after two hours, break time should increase to longer periods of 20 to 30 minutes. Breaks should be used to get coffee or, better, go for a walk, which is shown to boost mood and decrease fatigue. Cirillo developed the method while a student at Rome’s Luiss Business School and was inspired by the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used to track time spent on tasks (pomodoro is Italian for tomato). The Pomodoro method is also meant to differentiate work time from free time. (There are plenty of apps, too, that help remind you when to stand, stretch and take a break.)

This method also encourages people to work smarter—not longer—a tactic echoed in the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. The book hammers the fact that rest is the key to productivity, and that no one really needs to work endless hours to succeed.

(Related: I Need You to Know: Vacation Doesn’t Solve Burnout

For Ashley Roth, scheduling time for herself is key. As a mother of two who works full-time—she is a recreational therapist with EHN Canada, a network of mental health and recovery centres—Roth struggles to exercise unless she books a session. “I work out on my lunch break because that’s the only time I have [for myself] during my day,” she says.

Different activities benefit different parts of our well-being, so whatever you find time for, just do it. Puzzles can improve cognitive function, whereas going for a run can boost mood and improve physical health. Ideally, Roth says, people find time for activities that target various aspects of their health.

“Those social, emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual leisure experiences… [are] really how we balance our lives in this wild world,” she says. Without taking a break, we’re not able to recharge. That means we’re less able to communicate effectively or cope with external stressors. Roth suggests blocking time in your calendar—and actually writing it down either in pen or digitally—for an activity you enjoy. Some days it may be a 10-minute walk while once a week it might be dinner with a friend or a bath before bed.

Breaking your day into blocks may sound overly regimented and time-consuming, but it can illuminate how you’re spending your time. If you’re struggling to read for 15-minutes every night but want to, ask yourself, is there 15 minutes you can shave off from replying to non-urgent emails so you can get to bed sooner?

A photo of a clock with the numbers falling off, intended to portray the idea of making time and the lack of relaxation timeImage: Paul Weeks

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, writes in the New York Times that the key to productivity is to prioritize the people and projects that matter—an ideology called “attention management.” This means focusing on getting the right things done for the right reasons, not trying to do everything. We all have a limited amount of time, after all.

Also, be firm with yourself. See scheduled me time as an appointment that’s just as important as any other. It’s perfectly OK to say no to requests from others during this time. If that’s hard, remember: Keeping a date with yourself will improve your well-being. Roth says the benefits of making time for yourself bleed into your relationships, both personal and professional. In other words, being compassionate towards yourself and honouring your need for me time can actually make you a better partner, parent, colleague and friend. Without time for yourself, she says, “We’re not able to be a well-rounded person.”

And savouring downtime activities is just as important as doing them. It’s common for people to check emails while they’re walking around the block, or to refresh social media feeds when they’re spending time with friends. Multi-tasking might feel like a win in the productivity race, but Roth says when we’re not focused, the feelings we get from mood-boosting activities don’t register, and we are unable to reap the benefits.

“Feel that emotion you get from going out for a simple walk and looking at flowers and actually listening to what’s around you,” she says. “If you take time to really reflect and feel the joy, the emotion from it stays with you longer.”

(Related: The Awesome Health Benefits of Awe Walking

Other parts of the world are better at leisure time and taking breaks. In places like Italy and Spain, leisure and social time is prioritized and people spend less time on work-related tasks. Spain mandates a minimum of 30 days off work a year (yes, that’s above and beyond weekends). And research shows that work-life balance is a strong predictor of happiness.

North Americans, on the other hand, are obsessed with being busy. As American author Jenny Odell writes in her celebrated book How to Do Nothing, a cultural shift is necessary to rejig our priorities. “An individual body can be healed, and it can become healthy,” she writes. “But it can’t necessarily be optimized; it’s not a machine, after all.”

The same holds true for society as a whole. We need to value laid-back weekends as much as we value a productive day at the office. I’m trying to remind myself that if I don’t make time for a book and a buttery scone on Sunday, I’ll be less focused come Monday. That, to me, is an incentive I can get behind.

Next: The Life Changing Power of Hobbies

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada