Time Out. A man taking a day off and lying on the couch.

Taking a Time Out—When There’s Nothing In the Tank

We all have those days. Days when we wake up, get our coffee, sit down, and don’t feel like doing anything else. We begin to feel guilty, but inertia is fully in control. We may struggle with the battle between our need to do nothing and our responsibilities all day long. Why does this happen? It can happen because we had a terrible night’s sleep or because we drank too much the night before. It can happen because we’re upset about something and our emotions have immobilized us. It can also happen when we’ve been stressed or overwhelmed for an extended period of time and our bodies and psyches are shutting us down to reboot and recover. Whatever the reason, we should give this feeling the space it needs. We should consider why we feel like this and learn from it. On many, if not most, of the days when we feel like this, we should succumb to the feeling and go with it. We should veg out and give ourselves fully to going into standby mode. Our bodies and minds are often wiser than we are. When they speak so forcefully, we should listen.

Beyond low energy

There’s a difference between low energy days, which we may have fairly often, but which don’t immobilize us, and our days when we feel like we literally can’t do anything. When we feel this way, we might try to play it off as if it’s just another low energy day, and we might try to dismiss it. But sometimes, the feeling goes way beyond mere low energy. Our subconscious minds are screaming for a break, our psyches are begging for a day off. One hint that this is happening is a strong emotional component. Our subconscious minds will use all of the tools at their disposal and make sure we don’t buck up and power through. We will feel not only physically drained, but also emotionally spent. Some of these conditions will be related to the context of the moment, but others will be an all-encompassing feeling of emptiness—an emptiness of energy, but also a more overriding emptiness that includes our emotional state.

When we shut down but need to engage

There will always be times when we need to shut down, but just don’t have the time. We can’t take a day off of work, we can’t let the kids fend for themselves, we have to show up for our volunteer commitments. When we find ourselves in these positions, we should have a plan to do as little as possible—do the bare minimum and “mail it in”—the responsibilities will still be there when we become our old selves again. For those of us who are usually people pleasers, go-getters, or high performers, this can be hard. But we have to remind ourselves that by doing less today, we’ll be setting ourselves up for a swift recovery, and we’ll be able to do more, more consistently, soon. For everything we do on these days, we should ask ourselves if we can put it off, and if we can, we should. Treat it like a special day, where we just have to do those things that we absolutely have to do.

Being serious about doing nothing

When we feel like doing nothing, and we don’t have to do anything, we should be intentional about how we spend our time. Just as we’re intentional with our time when we’re feeling energized and prioritize our time for maximum effect, we should do the same when we’re taking a time out. What activities will expend the least amount of mental, emotional, and physical energy and allow us to recover? There is always the danger of only kind of taking the day off—we might piddle around the house working on this or that half-heartedly—when it would be better for us to drop everything and literally do nothing. But what does doing nothing really mean? It doesn’t mean just sitting in a chair and staring into space. There are a lot of activities that seem like doing nothing, but may not help us restore our energy. These might include going for a walk, going out to eat, or taking a shower. Things that seem like they should be rejuvenating, but ultimately take some energy to get up and do. Other activities really are doing nothing, such as binge-watching TV all day, napping or dozing on the couch, or reading some easy fiction. These categories might be different for everyone, so we need to really decide if we’re really taking downtime or doing something so “at least we’re getting some fresh air,” for example. Figure out for yourself what stores up energy and what uses energy, and stay focused on the former.

Proactively shutting down

It’s often the case that an urgent desire to take a time out happens suddenly and without warning, but if we maintain an awareness of our energy levels and emotional landscape, it is likely that the episode might have been anticipated. Of course, in a busy life, it can be difficult to notice these nuances of ourselves. We’re working hard just to stay on top of all of the surface aspects of our lives and can easily miss those signals that take place below the surface. But if we can notice these subtle signals, we will be able to see the warning signs of a coming crash and head it off. How can we do this? By taking a proactive off day—when it’s more convenient and when we can devote some significant time to it. Yes, it’s still hard to find that time, but if we have some forewarning, we will have at least some flexibility. Look for those signals and don’t ignore them.

We all need a break from time to time. Listen to what your soul is saying and heed its message. Take a time out.

A Time Out

Nothing in the tank.
Mind screaming at me to move,
but my soul says no.
A hundred demands and meeting none.

A time out for the moment.
A peaceful protest against the pace of life.
Today there will be nothing
so that I can create an eventual better something.

The demands, they nip at my consciousness
like mosquitoes, irritating and relentless.
I move to a mental place, indoors
away from the demanders, the mosquitoes.

What to do?
I still have to exist.
Time keeps passing,
looking over at me disdainfully.

I engage
not in living, but in life.
I eat, I pass the time,
I restore.

In that restoration,
I become myself again
Ready to restart—
ready to begin.

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