As the relaxing torpor of August shades into September, family schedules can get crazy. School starts, and with it full slates of after-school activities and sports. Workloads at the office increase as laid-back summer turns into get-‘er-done fall. Social lives heat up as friends return from vacations eager to reestablish connections.
With families running at breakneck speed to work, school, and play, family members can easily fall prey to stress. “Our bodies aren't designed to run at full speed all the time; chronic stress can cause disease. Even if you love your job, rest isn't just important, it's essential for good health,” Jill Young, a certified professional coach and worksite wellness program manager, told The FruitGuys Almanac. “Our bodies need 7 to 9 hours of sleep, plus time for recuperation.”
Kids need even more sleep; according to the National Sleep Foundation, school-aged children require 10–11 hours of sleep each night, while teens need at least 8.5 hours of shut-eye.
And sleep isn’t the only element of relaxation needed to protect against the damaging effects of stress. People need downtime, too—time spent on activities that are pleasurable and not necessarily in service of reaching any particular goal. You know...goof-off time.
Downtime is Golden
Downtime can help us connect to our family members. When we’re calm and rested, it’s easier to really hear what kids and spouses are saying to us. Prolonged periods with lots of running around and a heavy work or school schedule can create burnout, which is toxic to family life, Young says. “When work bleeds into one's personal life, it can cause resentment and even a sense of detachment from who we really are and what we value in life. Not only can your family suffer by your not being fully present while with them, but you do as well.”
Downtime spent as a family can be particularly rewarding. Meaningful communication and closeness don’t happen when parents are participating in bluetooth-enabled business phone calls while driving their kids to soccer practice. They happen in the quiet moments. They happen in the “boring” moments of family life when nothing in particular is getting done.
Making it Happen
The importance of downtime is one thing—making it happen, however, is another. Grownups are working more and commuting farther. Kids are carrying heavier homework loads. The amount of time in a day is finite. But a little relaxation can go a long way—think how rejuvenating a 20-minute catnap or 10-minute walk can be. Don’t let the pressure to have loads of downtime be an added stressor in your family’s life, instead look for creative solutions to the time dilemma, like divvying up chores in a fair and balanced way, or, if finances allow, outsourcing some chores such as housecleaning or yard work.
Integrating downtime might mean that family members will have to make hard choices about what to participate in and perhaps give up some activities. Learning to prioritize and balance activities, work, and rest are important skills. Helping kids learn them at a young age (by modeling them yourself, among other things), can be an invaluable life lesson.
Schedule it. Make it Inviolable
The most important aspect of making family downtime happen is scheduling it. Start with two hours a week or a couple of times per month. Choose a day and a time when other commitments are lighter and get it down on the calendar. Make sure everyone in the family knows that they are expected to not make other plans during that time.
Get Buy In
Okay, you’re on board with family relaxation time. But is the rest of the family? One way to move toward prioritizing family free time is to invite an honest discussion about each other's values. Young shares that she and her husband really valued their play time, but both had busy careers. “When we both felt frustrated about working too much, we decided to purposely schedule play time daily, or at the least weekly, rather than wait for our precious vacations. That discussion really changed the way we lived our lives. We not only supported each other, but we held each other accountable to a new standard of living.”
Digital Free Downtime
Make family downtime an electronics-free zone. Banish cell phones and iPads and turn off the TV. Instead, concentrate on activities that encourage conversation. Family game night; hikes or bike rides; even a walk to the local ice cream shop—when I look back on my childhood, it’s these kinds of evenings that bring back the happiest memories, time spent with parents who were paying attention and having fun themselves.
Achieving work/life balance for your family doesn’t mean ignoring school or professional obligations. As Young notes, “the secret to a balanced and fulfilled life is to show-up authentically in both roles and to live in the here and now. Appreciate the value of both roles and give one-hundred percent of yourself while at work and at home. For me, that's what balancing those two roles means.”
Miriam Wolf is a Portland-based health coach and the editor of The FruitGuys Almanac newsletter.