(I first wrote this post in 2017 – but it’s full of such good advice I thought I’d update it!)
Once upon a time in a lifetime far, far away I was a certified expert at chilling out. Pre-child I can vaguely recall a time when I could luxuriate in unlimited downtime. Well, unlimited outside of work hours that is.
I was an expert at putting rock-solid boundaries between my work and home life. As soon as I left the office my work brain switched off. I could go to the gym, out for dinner with friends, watch TV, or lie on the couch reading all weekend if I wanted to.
Those days are long gone.
Realising that my downtime would ALWAYS have a tight time limit on it was a shock to my self-indulged system when I became a mum.
For 39 years I’d been able to suit myself. And while I’d longed for my life to have a purpose beyond myself, it was still a big wake-up call.
Add working from home into the mix and it became nigh impossible to ring-fence my once taken for granted me-time.
When I was self-employed one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there’s no boundary between work and your personal life unless YOU impose one.
For far too long I’d start working straight after the school run, working all day before rushing to collect my daughter and doing the mum thing until bedtime. Then I’d get the laptop out again to spend the evening working – while peering at the TV over the laptop.
Of course, on top of all that I had to do the food shopping, pay the bills, manage the housework, get my daughter to her activities, and generally be super mum.
I sent myself on a high-speed express train to burnout, disillusionment and anxiety and depression.
Despite setting out with the intention of only working school hours, I was flogging myself harder than any boss ever had. And for very little return at times.
I started to wonder if it was all worth it.
I needed to give myself a break. Literally and figuratively. After all, if I didn’t take care of myself who else was going to? And if I worked myself into a nervous breakdown who was going to take care of my daughter?
As a solo mum, you’re it.
So I took a step back and examined what it was I wanted out of life. It was then that I realised I’d drifted too far from my ‘why’.
I’d wanted MORE control over my life not less. I wanted to be able to be there for my daughter, not to be ignoring her while I was bent over my laptop.
So I redesigned my life in a number of fundamental ways. I wrote a ‘life plan’ to help keep me focussed what’s most important to me, I moved in with my mum to ease the financial pressure, I started building downtime into my schedule.
Now that I have a job again I still use the same principles to make sure work, this blog and spending time with E don’t take up all my time. It’s very easy to push time for yourself to the bottom the pile, but if you don’t switch off regularly you end up no good to yourself, your work OR your kids.
If you don’t take time out to recharge you’ll quickly find you’re running on empty. And you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Below I’ve listed a few ways that I build downtime into my daily, weekly, monthly and annual schedule. I highly recommend you do the same. It will help keep your stress levels manageable, frustration and disillusionment at bay and your motivation and creativity flowing.
You don’t have to do all of them, decide what works for you and try and build a few into your life.
First, minimise distractions
The distractions of the digital world were massively responsible for a lot of my mental fatigue. So being brutal about minimising digital distractions has made a huge difference to me.
- Tame the social beast. If you can’t trust yourself not to endlessly scroll through social media feeds, remove the apps from. On your desktop, you can switch off the Facebook newsfeed. I use a Chrome extension called Newsfeed Eradicator. If you’re as much of a social media addict as I am this will feel like a HUGE step. But believe once you eliminate the temptations you’ll realise how little you’re actually missing and GET YOUR LIFE BACK.
- Have a strict ‘no screens in the bedroom’ rule. I leave my phone downstairs when I got to bed otherwise I WILL stay up late checking Twitter one last time and I WILL pick up my phone as soon as I wake up. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Turn off push notifications on your phone. Do you really need to know that someone liked your latest Facebook post or sent you an email the moment it happens? No. Take back control. Turn off ALL push notifications except genuinely essential ones – are there any?
- Set your devices to go silent or switch off at a certain time each evening. My phone and laptop go into night mode or shut down at 9.30pm. You can always override this if you need to, but try not to!
- Write morning pages. Keep a notebook by your bed and as soon as you wake up write without stopping for as long as you can. Don’t worry if it’s nonsense, turn your critical self off and just let the words flow.
- Meditate. I try to do this before my daughter is up but also try to snatch a few minutes of quiet mindfulness throughout the day – on the train for instance.
- Take a walk. I often go for a 20-minute walk straight after school drop-off, and before starting work. It’s great thinking time. Or just focus on the sounds around you. Bonus points if you can do in a soothing green space.
- Yoga. I’m a big fan of Yoga with Adriene. A few minutes, or even better half an hour, of yoga will help you recalibrate your brain and refresh your mental capacities.
- Schedule a regular ‘switch off night’. Go analogue for one evening a week. I love doing this – but don’t do it nearly often enough! Have an evening without any screens. No TV, no laptop, no phone. And make your kids to it too. Instead, to a friend on the phone, write in your journal, do yoga or cook. Anything that doesn’t need a screen.
- Exercise. Go to a yoga class, swim, run, play netball. Whatever you enjoy that lets you move your body and stop thinking about your to-do list.
- Have a bath. Every Sunday night after E is in bed I run the bath and settle down with a book. So simple, but it feels like such a treat.
- Get into bed early with a good book. Whenever I’m feeling frazzled doing this sorts me out. I get to sleep early and wake up the next day with renewed energy and enthusiasm for whatever life is throwing at me.
- Go on a big country walk. Take the kids and just be with them, immersed in green space, away from any distractions.
- Have a duvet day. Sometimes it all gets too much and you have to admit defeat and hide in your bed, or on the sofa binge-watching Netflix. Gilmore Girls is ideal for this! I also think it’s worth deliberately scheduling a day to do this. Just before the school holidays is always a good time so you can recharge the batteries before chaos ensues.
- Go to the cinema alone. Before I had a child it felt like a sad, lonely thing to do. Now it feels like a super indulgent way to spend my time. Note to self: must do this more often!
- Book a spa day away day! Got a free day when the kids are in day care or at school? Treat yourself to a day of pampering. Keep your eyes peeled for Groupon special offers and take a book or just switch off. Such a treat.
- Go on a retreat. OK, admittedly this is slightly trickier to achieve when you’re a solo mum with little kids. But if you have a willing grandparent or another relative who’s happy to look after your little one/s then I urge you do to do this. Book a weekend away with friends or by yourself to totally recharge and rejuvenate. Sleep, eat, read, knowing there’s nothing else to do and nowhere else for you to be.
I know you’ve heard it a million times, but taking time for you is really important. I’ve learned from hard-won experience just HOW true that is.
Despite being well aware that I needed to give myself a break, me-time always went to the bottom of the priority list. There was always something else to do before I could close my laptop.
One last tweak to a post, or one last email to send. And before I knew it, hours had passed and any opportunity to relax had been missed.
The thing is, there will ALWAYS be more to do. It’s up to you to draw the line that says ‘I’m important too’.
Diarise your downtime and protect it fiercely. If you skip a scheduled session of downtime, make sure you don’t miss the next one. After a walk, a good night’s sleep or an evening off grid you’ll return to your to-do list in a far more productive state of mind.
What will you next downtime session be? Let me know in the comments.