Kathleen Murphy column: Seeing a need to corral downtime
My online calendar, once full and obsessively color-coded, is empty.
Prior to St. Patrick’s Day, I had a busy schedule. As many do.
I left my home and went to another location for work. I volunteered. A few times a week, I met friends for coffee or lunch. I managed a large household with people running in every direction and needing reminders that it was their night to do dishes.
Because I had a busy schedule, I was adamant about giving myself downtime. Not self care time — at least not in the sense that I had to exercise or feel guilty for missing it — but actual, lazy downtime.
I love downtime. It gives me the opportunity to shut off my brain, crack open a book, read four pages, then doze off. Or maybe zone out in front of the television with one of my kids, laughing at our newest reality show find. Downtime revitalizes me and gives me a chance to process my day.
My relationship with downtime has changed.
St. Patrick’s Day was my last busy day. I didn’t worry about downtime. It was my last day at my actual job location, so I was occupied with completing everything that needed to be done in order to transfer my job over to a distance endeavor.
The next day, Wednesday, March 18, I woke up and gave myself a pep talk. I could do this. I could do anything for a few weeks. It would all be OK. Then I did what needed to be done to make things work.
That was, of course, over a month ago. I am still working, but I find myself with a lot of downtime, and it’s never neatly compartmentalized anymore. My online calendar, once full and obsessively color-coded by type of activity because I find comfort in that kind of order, is empty. I don’t schedule work because remote work, I am finding, is fluid and oozes over into real life all too easily. It takes time to learn to corral that beast, and I haven’t mastered that skill as of yet. It’s on my to-do list — a to-do list I don’t see myself ever getting around to, though I’m hard-pressed to give a valid reason why.
Because my calendar is empty, I avoid checking it. Because I don’t check it, a few weeks ago, I missed the only activity that was on it. One of my friend groups was meeting virtually. An hour before our meeting time, one of my kids suggested take-out pizza and a board game might be fun. I jumped on the idea and single-mindedly dedicated the rest of the evening to family downtime.
I had a fun evening with my kids, but before St. Patrick’s Day, I never would have “just forgot” to attend an event. In a little over a month, I have lost all ability to focus or multi-task. Time management has become irrelevant. We have nothing but time, after all. So why worry about it?
In other words, what was once my valued downtime has become a looming beast, one I have to fight in order to get anything done. The other day, I sat down at my laptop to work, and ended up instead finding five different patterns hidden in the wood grains of my desk (the fox face and unicorn are my favorites). The entire day was like that, weird little mindless activities book-ending bursts of productivity.
The next day was not a work day, so I spent the entire day in downtime. That’s how my life is now. I either sprinkle downtime haphazardly into my day, or I do nothing but. There is no in between.
Now we are facing the stark reality that “getting back to normal” might not be an actual thing. We are in this for the long haul. We have to do what is right and protect our most vulnerable.
I’m going to give myself another pep talk. I can do this. I can do anything, even if it’s a long-term change. First thing: Fix my relationship with downtime. I’m going to be having a lot of it. We need to be friends again.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at email@example.com.