I was probably near the end of my high school career when my dad gave me the following insight about adult life:
“You’re going to love the working life. Your job will be consuming during the day, but then you’ll be able to relax in the evenings, and what you’ll find is more time for your hobbies and leisure.”
At the time, so much of my life was spent running from one obligation to the next. There were classes, then extracurricular activities, then homework, and before I knew it, it was bedtime. Though I certainly enjoyed my extracurricular activities, they were ultimately still in the category of an obligation for personal and professional growth. Hobbies and leisure were largely foreign to me.
When I entered my adult working life, however, the evening leisure time my dad had talked about did not magically materialize. Of course, technology had transformed professional lives during the intervening years. When I was in high school, my dad’s colleagues couldn’t reach him with a “quick email or text” after work hours and they would rarely dare to call the home phone line past a certain time.
Additionally, though, I think years of chasing obligations had formed in me a belief that time is best spent being productive. While I yearned for the leisurely evenings my dad told me about as a teenager, I struggled to justify actually relaxing.
When my burnout hit, I wouldn’t say I fell into leisure. It was more of a crash and burn scenario that included a lot of sleeping and mindless vegging out. So, as I started to regain energy, I found myself not sure how to stave off the old habits of checking into work after hours. But I knew that if that pattern continued, burnout would follow.
After a bit of trial and error, I’ve discovered a few rituals that have helped turn my evenings into the rest and leisure time my dad suggested I’d enjoy about adult life.
01. Have a productive project to transition from work life to home life
If your day is anything like mine, it’s filled to the brim with tasks to complete, emails to respond to, meetings to attend, and generally more work than often fits into the work day. I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to go from my fast paced work rhythm to reading a book quietly in my living room. So most evenings my first step after work is a productive task. Sometimes it’s cooking dinner, other times it’s a workout, or even a quick load of laundry.
Neuroscience research shows that completing a physical task changes our brains. It activates our reward-system, by giving us a sense of completion.
For me, the process of doing something productive that impacts my home life helps me ease into the mindset that my personal life is just as important as my professional life.
02. Have a story you’re immersed in
Admittedly, I’ve not been much of a Netflix binge watcher until recently. A combination of not knowing what shows I’d really enjoy watching and not wanting to “lose time” to TV watching made it undesirable for me. But in the past year, I’ve found that having a storyline I’m working my way through has been less mindless and more restorative than I previously thought.
While reading a good novel might be a “better” choice for my evening hours, sometimes I’ve read so much during the day that taking time to read at night doesn’t sound restorative. It helps to remember that reading is “effortful fun,” and sometimes that is enough to help me crack open a good book. But the benefits of having a fictional storyline have helped me judge myself less harshly for the occasional Netflix binge.
“Checking in” on the lives of fictional characters helps me take a break from the various worries that might be lingering in my mind during the evening hours. Instead of dwelling on the things that might be worrying me, I’m swept into the drama of characters who may or may not be relatable to me. The escapism really has helped make my evenings a true break from whatever is consuming my thoughts in any given day or week.
03. Add a bath to your bedtime routine
As I’ve written previously, sleep hygiene does not come naturally to me—and I know I’m not alone in this struggle. Research backs up my personal experience—that taking a bath shortly before bedtime will help with sleep efficiency. According to Shahab Haghayegh, a sleep researcher, writing for The Conversation:
“The body temperature needs to drop to initiate good sleep. When we take a warm bath or shower, the body brings [sic] large amount of blood flow to the surface, especially hands and feet. This blood flow brings the heat from the core to the surface and rejects the heat to the environment and causes a drop in body temperature. Therefore, if you take a warm bath/shower at the right biological time—one to two hours before bedtime—it will aid your natural circadian process and improve your sleep.”
Additionally, I add Epsom salts to my baths, along with Dr. Teals Lavender bubbles, and let me tell you I’m never not fully relaxed after a bath. Epsom salts are a muscle relaxer, so when I emerge from baths my legs and arms typically feel a little like jelly. It’s so satisfying to pull on my pajamas and crawl into bed, and sleep is never far behind.
Your mindset matters
You may notice that I’ve said nothing about your phone, turning off work emails in the evening, and screen time. The truth is, though the science is clear about how screen time negatively influences sleep and the advice to just turn off your work email is well-meaning, neither suggestion is always practical. Sometimes for myriad reasons you are watching for an after hours email from a colleague. Or sometimes your family text exchange might be active right before your bedtime and you want to be in the conversation.
For me, I’ve found my mindset has been the key to not letting a work email steal my peace in the evenings and has helped me know when to put the phone down and pick up a book, journal, or start a bath.
I may see a work email after hours, I may even respond (sometimes), but I’ve become wiser about discerning if it’s really necessary to respond. As humans we have limits, and we don’t need to apologize for them.
Specifically, I’ve developed a habit of remembering that rest is critical to my thriving—both as a professional and simply as a person. My dad was right—leisure in the evenings is a true perk of adult life.