In the past year I’ve been working with many clients who have shared stories of aches and pains, fatigue and burnout due to the increased time they spend in front of a screen.
Whether it’s studying or working from home, technology has been a saving grace, allowing most of us to carry on with what needs to be done as we’ve adapted to lockdowns and restricted movement triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, more time in front of a screen comes with significant physical and mental health costs.
Let’s take meetings or online classes as an example. With in-person gatherings, we tend to regularly shift our focus, move around a little, and feel connected to people’s physical presence. The boss or lecturer is usually more than a few feet away from our faces.
And while some estimates suggest humans can focus optimally for two hours before needing a break, it’s more realistic to say that the average person can concentrate fully between 20 and 50 minutes before they start to zone out.
This makes sense. It’s only in the last 30 years that computers have been in common use, and dedicated office spaces came into being just 300 years ago. In comparison, modern humans have been around for around 200,000 years. So it’s safe to say that we’re not designed to, as some research suggests, sit around for more than half our waking hours or focus on screens for an average of seven hours each day.
Leading a sedentary lifestyle can lead to a whole range of short and long-term health problems, and our mental health is also significantly affected by long periods of concentrating and sitting at our desks.
With all the commitments that require our attention, it can be difficult for people to realistically find time to take proper care of their health – especially if they have additional duties on top of their workload.
Ideally, college and business leaders should be on hand to offer whatever support people need to look after their well-being and to view it as an investment – a healthy workforce is a productive workforce that takes fewer MC days. They also tend to have higher levels of motivation and engagement.
But what can be done on an individual level when it feels like there’s no time to take care of ourselves?
For myself, I created a flexible schedule that I call my “hour through the day”, which can be split into chunks of time that add up to 60 minutes of activities that are non-work related.
On days where I have several sessions with clients, that might include a 10-minute meditation in the half-hour break between two sessions. Another 10 minutes might go to stretching and other body movement exercises later in the day. When I come home, if I have things to attend to, I might squeeze in a 10 minute jog and then, after dinner, I’ll watch an episode of a favourite TV show. If I have more time in my day, I’ll fit in other self-care activities.
The idea is to have at least one hour of time dedicated specifically to enjoyable, de-stressing activities.
Creating your own “hour through the day” is beneficial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it does away with the pressure of finding hours in the day for self-care. If you can’t find pockets of time in your day that add up to an hour, you can aim for a half-hour through your day.
These five- to 10-minute pockets of time can serve as pressure valves that help you de-stress through the day. Otherwise, stress compounds, we feel more overwhelmed, and the work keeps coming. Predictably, fatigue and burnout soon follow and, as many of us will know, the effects are not pleasant.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that the “hour (or half-hour) through the day” is a suggestion of the minimal time we should find for ourselves if we can. Ideally, that time would be much longer but for many it’s just not possible.
The important thing is that we find some time to unwind and do something that’s not work-related. If mediation or jogging isn’t your thing, that’s OK – do whatever you enjoy. My self-care also involves eating cookies and reading fiction.
As my local minister would say, “Besides the Bible, the most important book is the diary. You have to protect your time or else there’s always someone who’ll make use of it.”
Being intentional about finding time through the day helps us to remember how to relax – something that’s easy to forget in a high-demand work culture where we’re always reachable.
So if you’re up against it with projects and deadlines, try creating your own “hour through the day” where KPIs are banned, and naps and chocolate are welcomed with open arms.
If that inner boss-voice makes you feel guilty for taking time for yourself, feel free to mentally shut the door, safe in the knowledge that you work hard and do your job well, and are more deserving of your own time than anyone else.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.