What did you do with your lunch hour? Were you hunched over your work, spilling sandwich crumbs on the keyboard? Or frantically ticking off chores on your to-do list? The average working day may be only eight hours long, yet many of us think we need the same again to recover from it.
According to a survey of 2,000 people for Direct Line insurance, six hours and 59 minutes is the perfect amount of free time in a day – something we haven’t had since 1995. Instead, 80% of workers surveyed said their leisure time was eroded by the constant need to be connected to work through emails and smartphones – with our free time shrinking to, on average, just two hours and 45 minutes a day.
Judy Wajcman, a professor of sociology at LSE who is writing a book on time poverty, points out that technology, while it can save us time and deepen our connections with each other, has also led to a greater expectation that we will do additional work outside the office.
So train journeys, for instance, which used to be “dead time” are now colonised by work or emails, reducing our time for reflection and creativity. Then there is the “self-service culture” – from booking our own holidays instead of using travel agents, to printing our own photographs – which is supposed to save us money, but often just sucks up more leisure hours.
Working mothers – especially single working mothers, she says – are often under the most time pressure. Partly because they are still often considered responsible for domestic work, but also because of what Wajcman calls the “intensification of parenting”. Today, while couples both work, people actually expect to spend more time with their children, not less, than we did in the past.
“Women cut back on other domestic work so they can spend time with their children, because people now feel it is more important to be present and listen,” she points out. “But it’s also about driving them to tutors, or classes.”
Gail Kinman, a professor of occupational health psychology, agrees. “Blood pressure, for instance, goes up through the working day thanks to stress. Normally it comes back down again in the evening – but for women with children it doesn’t.”
But everyone, she says, needs time for our physiological responses – from an increased heart rate to tense muscles – to recede after work, “otherwise [they are] linked to coronary heart disease, strokes and muscle pain”.
So what can we do? Fran Booth, author of The Distraction Trap, suggests a “digital detox”. “Often, when we check our messages or phone, we get caught up answering other people’s demands, rather than filling our time with things that please us,” she says. “We need to decide how we want to spend our free time, and then fit technology around it.”
Turning off your phone at night, and not switching it back on before breakfast, is a good start, she says. As is going “off grid” for as little as 15 minutes a day – switching off your phone and email when doing something that matters to you.
Keeping your phone out of sight when you are having a conversation will also help you focus, while going digital-free during the weekends and holidays will truly claw back your leisure time.
Kinman thinks having a “corridor” that marks off your work and home life is important if you are to make the most of your free time. “It could be taking the dog for a walk, cooking or listening to the radio.”
This also means not trying to cram too much in. “Make sure you don’t treat your lesiure time too seriously,” she advises. “We try to organise our leisure activities too much, which makes them more stressful.”
Career psychologist Julianne Miles advises against “going through your to-do list”. Instead, she says: “value enjoyable activities that help you to regain your energy as much as [you value] achievements”.
“Identify those activities that help you to switch off from work, as we need times when we get away from work both emotionally and cognitively as well as physically: your mind is still at work even when you’re not. Psychologists call this ‘psychological detachment’ from work and it is related to greater life satisfaction and lower emotional exhaustion.”
At lunchtime, says Kinman, it is imperative to get away from your desk. Five or 10 minutes in the morning to be “mindful” can also help, says Kinman. Whether this means drinking a cup of tea and trying to focus on the taste, or just sitting and breathing, thinking about what you are doing. “It’s about being aware of the moment. We tend to ruminate on bad thoughts, but don’t try to banish them – instead examine them and let them go – as you might with a newspaper.” Even a few minutes of focusing on the present in this way “is a real deep relaxation or release”, she says.
While for working mothers, Kinman suggests: “Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t worry about taking shortcuts. I am a firm believer in being ‘good enough’.”
And finally, Kinman points out, we shouldn’t feel guilty about wrestling our time back from work, because, “if you don’t have time to recover and your brain and body is depleted, your job performance suffers in the long term.”