Monday, November 18, 2013

The Importance of Downtime

It has been said that America's business is 'busy-ness.' I think that is true, generally speaking. Work is essential for life to be sustained. Bills need to be paid as our president has pointed out, and food needs to be put on the table. Likewise, financial security that can take care of us in the hard times, or in our 'old age,' is an important goal in America. Sometimes though, it seems that we get too caught up in our work and monetary goals and we forget what we are doing it all for.  The stress and pressure of 'getting ahead,' can be daunting, and cynically take away opportunities to rest and unwind. Moreover, our own kids learn our ways by default. Work is good for the mind, but rest is the other side of this equation that is supposed to render a 'balanced life.' Remember that saying, "all work and no play makes Joe a dull boy?"

For example, do you do your best work when you are annoyed and irritated, or  when you are calm, and relaxed? Protecting our emotional state of being is good for us, and for our children, since they see how we value life by our daily sequence of actions. Do you relax and unwind everyday? Do you do so watching television or using a media device? Do you go for pleasant walks? Do you smoke and drink alcohol to relax? Do you do exercise to feel better? Do you do family 'happy hour' on Friday's, which includes food, music and family (and doesn't need to include alcohol)? Do you meditate with your kids for 1-3 minutes? Do you horseplay with them on the rug every week? Do you read books, stretch, drink good tea and practice the art of chit-chat? My family has a tradition of 5pm happy hour. They don't bust out the Bebel Gilberto music, but their are appetizers, family, conversation, and usually little kids running around. This is downtime. This is time to drop those shoulders, breathe in deeper, and let go of the pressure of the day, for your sake and for your family's sake.

However it may be that you are self-regulating, your relaxation choices influence and teach your children parent-approved ways of unwinding with downtime.  Often times though, downtime is minimized, or skipped. To illustrate this, let's take a look at public schools across the nation, and yes, I am going to generalize with a broad brush stroke. My experience across the countries school systems, primarily Boston Public Schools, Hawaii Public Schools, and Connecticut public school systems in the Fairfield County area have relegated unwinding and relaxation time to something that can be done once home, unless an IEP specifically states that the student is to be prompted to unwind with 'stated tools' as listed in the IEP during school hours. To be fair, lunch time gives space and time where the student can 'unwind.' Yet, I believe that having downtime is crucial to optimize work performance.

From another point of view, scientist have found that the brain's firing systems simply cannot continue to keep itself in a state of continual focus, and sustained attention without periods of downtime. A great deal of kids who have attentional issues to begin with simply cannot handle being focused class after class, and about mid-morning you start seeing a lot of kids with their torso's drooping, gazing elsewhere, or creating their own downtime by socializing during class time.

This underscores not only the importance of downtime during the day, but having a 'good night sleep,' in order to keep one's executive function skills sharp as a tack. To put in layman's terms, their are brain chemicals and hormones which get depleted after focus and sustaining attention segments during the student's day. These brain chemicals can be re-supplied after some downtime.  Parents can do their part by setting and sticking to consistent bedtimes, as well as spend time with their kids doing downtime activities that are stress-free. Schools that understand the rest/ work productivity inter-connection stagger instruction and use a litany of tools and strategies to keep students motivated and engaged. This entails a continual feedback loop between teacher and student that needs to be personalized  in order to render a successful educative outcome during that school day. In other words, the onus is on the instructor to gauge student focus, and re-calibrate instruction. This may mean that the subject-matter is suspended while the teacher leads the class in a 3-4 minute breathing exercise that can integrate meditative aspects. Likewise, on an administrative level, a school principal may take actions to safeguard recess time, and even further emphasize it by holding a series of on-going training talks to school staff in order to shape mindsets in favor of the use of 'downtime.'

The importance of downtime is key for a busy America. We should get busy about being unbusy during the day, at the end of the day, the end of the workweek and during the weekends. Our families mental state of being depends on it.

Check out this 1:33 second video on the importance of downtime by Dr. Daniel Goleman

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