Can You Have Too Much Downtime?

Most people I know complain about their pace of life being too fast. “Crazy-busy” fast. They are trying to find a way to add that 25th hour to the day so they can read a book for fun, get more sleep, play, or recreate. Or even get more work done! But I also see people in my practice who are suffering from the effects of having too much downtime.

Too Much Downtime?

So how does one ever have too much downtime, you might ask? In one of several ways:

  • You might become temporarily or permanently disabled from work for either mental, medical, and/or a combination of reasons and find yourself at home 24/7 trying to figure out what you can and/or should do with yourself now that you carry the “disabled” label.
  • You may have a job with inconsistent, unpredictable, or widely varying work hours/days/weeks/months. It may be feast or famine, 14-hour days for weeks or months, and then nothing for the same amount of time. Or four months of 18-20 hour days and nothing for the other 8. Not everyone is 9-5 most weeks of the year and students of all ages can also find themselves during summers or holiday breaks with too much downtime. And those affected by the government shutdown may also find themselves in the same situation.
  • You may have entered retirement, either voluntarily, willingly, and perhaps joyfully, or been retired or your job phased out. Or maybe what began as temporary unemployment has become chronic. Or what you thought would be a quick job search is turning into months or years of trying to find employment.
Time to Act!

There’s enough research out there now for us to know that major transitions, like retirement, can increase the risk of heart disease and major health issues by up to 40%. But you can probably tell if you’ve got too much downtime by a sense of malaise and low-grade depression and motivation that begins to sneak up on you. You have all the time in the world, but you don’t really want to do anything with it.

Whether it is the stress of the transition or the amount of unstructured time and loss of meaningful roles to play, it is important if you find yourself with too much downtime that you be aware of the potential negative impact on your mental and physical health and act now.

Find the Middle

You know I’m always preaching that the ends of any continuum are where you are likely to find less health and more dis-ease. And when it comes to busy-ness, it’s the same: Health and happiness will be near the center, where there is a balance between being busy and productive and relaxed and unstructured.

Structure Your Unstructured Time

If you are at home all day, you will be healthier and happier if you have a day planner and schedule your day just like you were “at work.” You can write in blocks of time you will devote to various aspects of your life: mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual. You can set goals in each of those areas and be sure you are spending a certain amount of time each day or work working on them.

Just because you are “disabled,” unemployed, or job-seeking doesn’t mean you stop being a person who needs to take care of all aspects of your life.

Go for Balance

Remember you don’t want to go to the other end of the continuum and fill up every hour with activities. Go for balance. You still need downtime during downtime! But you will feel better and cut your risk of feeling depressed and anxious, or of developing major medical issues, if you can learn how to manage having too much downtime in ways that allow you to feel productive, engaged, stimulated, and continue to feel connected to the world in which you live.

P.S. If you’re on vacation, ignore everything you just read. Relax, enjoy, feel free not to plan a thing. Except for who’s going to feed your cats while you’re gone. Take care of that then relax and enjoy and we’ll see you when you get back!

DrAnita Sanz, PhD, Psychologist

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