You Probably Need to Do This One Thing More Often

You Probably Need to Do This One Thing More Often

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

Note from Emilie: I thought it would be appropriate to publish this article by Neil right after my last post. You might call it #adviceIneedtohear. Maybe it will benefit you, too.


Do your attempts to be kind to yourself ever backfire?

I’ve noticed lately that my moments of self-generosity are occasionally actively unhelpful to me:

“Fine, I’ll watch another episode.”

“I’ve worked hard, I don’t need to exercise today.”

“If I eat a second dessert… then I can free up the time that I would have spent eating it later! Genius.”

None of these things are bad, of course. (In fact, I am a tremendous fan of being entertained, resting and eating sweet treats –  and I’m even happy to multitask all three, if necessary.)

However, there’s a common theme here: when I choose between two ‘Goods’ (exercise versus consumption, say), I regularly justify taking the easier path. Over a long enough period of time, I end up neglecting important activities entirely.

Sometimes this neglect becomes obvious. If I stop working or exercising it doesn’t take long for me to notice.

But there’s one neglected need which I can go a long time without detecting: retreat.

(I’m using the word ‘retreat’ because I recently discovered this beautifully inspiring YouTube channel about meditation and retreat, but the terminology doesn’t matter. I’m talking about taking time out for nothing but quiet reflection – whether you think of it as meditation, or prayer, or simply silence, isn’t important.)

Filling Time is Addictive

Retreat is important because without it I slowly but surely become overwhelmed.

This is because I’m addicted to filling my time.

Whenever I go on holiday I take my laptop, and I bring along work I can do while I’m away. There are always articles I could write, book ideas to explore, websites to design. It seems a shame to not maximise using my time, right?

Normally, I never actually do any work during these holidays. But my laptop is always there, lurking and emitting a near-tangible cloud of constant guilt.

This need for retreat isn’t only about holiday time. Pretty much every moment of my daily existence is filled with something – apps, work, friends, socialising, tv, youtube, social media, articles, learning… and so on.

Like I said, none of this stuff is bad*. But it is relentless.

Just as words without space become noise, a life without downtime becomes overwhelming. Our human brains need space and time to process and catch up and rest.

* (Admittedly, the global jury is out on whether social media is good/bad, but it does have its occasional good points, too.)

Taking Time Out

This overwhelm sneaks up on us, perhaps as a low-level feeling of disquiet, or as a background drone of stress which saps our energy.

I know I should do something about it, but I struggle to justify taking space and time purely for retreat. This seems ludicrous, since I spend most of my time working entirely in my own space, and I rarely have to answer to anybody else.

Unfortunately, it appears that I am a surprisingly cruel boss in this respect.

Of course, I’m not consciously trying to be cruel. If anything, this problem arises from good intentions: my brain doesn’t want me to fall behind, so it forces me to keep pushing forward… constantly.

Until it gives out.

I’ve known for a while that I’ve been neglecting this aspect of my life. I used to have a disciplined meditation habit, which helped me remain mentally healthy (or healthier, at least). Somehow this habit slipped and dwindled until it was just another thing I wasn’t quite doing properly.

Finally, last month I snapped and booked a few days for a proper retreat – the first in years. I didn’t allow myself to feel guilty about it, or to believe that I ought to secretly use the time ‘productively’.

Instead, I allowed myself to simply recharge. I spent a few days in an old abbey, wandering the countryside, eating delicious food in remote country pubs, and resting.

I came back refreshed and ready to be more productive than I have been in a long time.

My brain often opposes the idea of retreat because it doesn’t directly solve any of my problems. But this is like my brain objecting to charging my phone because “recharging doesn’t make any phone calls”.

Retreat isn’t supposed to solve our problems. Instead, it recharges us, so we can solve our issues more easily.

Build Retreat into Life

Sadly, it’s not always possible to find days to wander the countryside without any particular agenda. (Though I have vowed to consciously make time for this sort of retreat more regularly in future.)

Instead, I’m aiming to take steps to create more space in my everyday life: defining hours when my phone will be on ‘airplane’ mode, setting reminders to take occasional quiet time, and resisting the temptation to berate myself for ‘not constantly working’.

Retreat doesn’t have to be a big deal, but – for me, at least – it’s a need which I have to meet.

Your Turn

Do you recognize when you haven’t been taking enough time for yourself? How do you make space in your daily life? Let the community know in the comments!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Isabella says:

    Thanks for the highly relatable reflection, Emilie.

    I find that feelings of urgency, anxiety, impatience, rushing…you get the gist…are all prompts for me to pause.

    Sometimes, I’ll get up from my desk and go sit on my sofa, set my cell timer for seven minutes, and simply sit in silence, quieting my mind, breathing. For a while, I tried doing this on the top of every hour, but found that too challenging, though I still think it’s s good idea.

    Other times, I’ll pause to read something inspiring for just a few minutes.

    Finally, my pooch helps me out by asking to be walked in our beautiful neighborhood. When I’m self aware and brave, I leave my cell phone behind (wink-wink).

    Thanks again for surfacing this topic.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      yay, I’m glad you liked it :) I’m setting up a reminder system to take more quiet moments of retreat during the day – thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Linda Ursin says:

    When I haven’t been resting enough or taking enough time away from the business, my body wacks me with a 2×4 :) Pain is a strong reminder to take some time to rest.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      oh yes exactly this..! my body has learned that it apparently needs to shock me into action (inaction?!) from time to time. I suppose that’s what I get for not paying enough attention to it!

  3. Sabina says:

    Yes! Wow, totally yes. It’s super weird that one should kind of need to get “permission” to just slack off, but when does it ever happen? If I’m not outputting (being productive) I’m inputting (bingeing on Netflix or reading), but I want to be able to sit still for a while without being overwhelmed by the urge to check my phone or get back to work. It’s on my todo-list…

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s such a great way of putting it! Input is important, but I’m exactly the same: the second I have a free moment I’m reading or browsing or watching videos or SOMETHING. Very rarely do I allow myself those childlike moments of just staring out of the window and letting my brain rest.

  4. Michelle says:

    I always know when I need more rest because I get really clumsy and more often than not, break something.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      :D that’s quite a handy alarm – at least you have the self-knowledge to notice that about yourself!

  5. Marco says:

    Damn! That is so me! Even in the “spare time”, I’m always goal-driven: watch another episode, *so you can finish the series*; let’s play videogames, *there’s a long list waiting to be played*; let’s practice piano, *look at how many songs you want to learn*; let’s go to bed *so you can finish reading that book*! and so on and so on. More often than not this will translate into “not having time” for most-needed fitness exercise.

    By now, my solution to “find a retret” is to dedicate the evening to walk around aimless (-ish, *so we can grab an icecream!*) with my girlfriend. It is not “alone” or “medative” time, but in feels like something :D

    Hello from Italy!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hi Marco! That’s exactly me too – all the same justifications for doing *something* rather than rest and retreat.

  6. Susan says:

    I really identify with this article! I find it almost impossible to sit still and do nothing. The closest I can come to taking a break is to work in the garden! Pulling weeds is somewhat mindless, I find it relaxing, and it eases my conscience about “doing nothing.” Another way that I “retreat” is to read for fun–in the middle of the day (I’m retired–which suggests I should be able to retreat more readily, but that hasn’t seem to have happened!). I will occasionally give myself a break by taking a walk, but even then I most often combine it with completing an errand at a store that is a walkable distance!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I hear from lots of people that gardening acts as a form of meditation for them – it’s fantastic you have that opportunity! I’m the same with walking… I love it, but I mostly only do it if I have a destination in mind.

  7. Gabi says:

    Yes, I feel this soo much. My spouse finally agreed that we needed a week away, and we plan to eat out only, no meals to plan or cook. I am getting to the point where a simple decision drives me over the edge so then I know, it is time to get away. Even looking forward to that week helps me to take time now, because I have driven myself to illness occasionally. The true questions is why do we feel like every waking moment has to be filled? It seems like a harmful practice, yet our society encourages and rewards this behavior. Get up early and write a few pages on that novel, so you can finally meet that goal. Use your lunch break more effectively by creating a side project that fills your need for creativity. We need to rest, seriously. Studies have been done on the brain when it doesn’t get rest, no, don’t go look it up, go stare at some flowers or the ocean and rest! Anyway, you struck a chord here.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m glad it resonated with you, Gabi! I don’t know why we’re all like this :( but it is definitely a societal problem. And part of the problem is that even though I KNOW what’s good for me, I still don’t necessarily do it. Glad you’re finding some rest soon :)

  8. Lisa Davis says:

    At a barbecue on Sunday, for a few minutes I was sitting in a chair, just enjoying the weather, not thinking anything or doing anything. When I realized that, I thought, “Wow! This feels great!” Yep, probably need to do more of that.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely! It’s so easy to miss those lovely moments of contentment. I’m glad you experienced and noticed this one! Thanks for sharing :)

  9. Maryske says:

    Wow, Neil, this was a really great post. I can so relate to this!

    In itself, I’m not *that* bad at taking time out to just sit and think/relax (or so), but I do think I need to do it more, for that guilt you’re talking about, about not using your time properly, is something I often struggle with.
    Fortunately, I seem to be able to do it pretty much anywhere, as long as I’m alone, or at least not in the company of people I know and who expect me to interact with them. My favourite place for it is the beach after sunset – in fact, I just got back from a short holiday on the Polish Rivièra, where I spent every evening on a bench on the beach there, till it simply got too cold! And all I do is watch the ships at sea, the lights and lighthouses, the waves, the stars – just thinking about everything and nothing, and often singing (that’s something I find very relaxing).

    Loved your analogy with the telephone charger btw – I’ve got to remember that one!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      ohh that holiday sounds delightful – I’m very jealous! :D

      and yay :) I’m very happy the article resonated with you!

  10. Craig Kulyk says:

    Neil, YES!! I did a solo camping retreat a few years ago when I was suffering mad burn out. It took about 2 days to settle my mind but the last day was full of calm and then a flood of breakthrough ideas for changes. Now I do at least one retreat every year (either solo or with my partner) where the only goals are to unplug, calm my mind, and reflect where I’m at in life – no work allowed. I take vacation time off too, but the retreats have been the most energizing and fruitful. Here’s a post I wrote a while ago about it –

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Excellent, thank you for sharing, Craig! It’s so important, and I know it, but it’s one of those things that’s easy to forget unless you schedule and prioritise it. Trying to get better at this!

  11. Hannah says:

    Oh dear this is so me. Although funnily enough I did make it to the hammock two days ago. So, what to do? How to improve? How do we kick the habit of Time-filling?

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I don’t think there’s an easy answer other than putting in the effort to schedule (and respect) retreat time! I’m aiming to get a couple of days of full retreat every six months… will see how that goes :)

  12. Alison says:

    I think perhaps Neil has a spy-cam in my mind/soul.
    For years I was excellent at being lazy, but it was a procrastinating, real-self denying kind of lazy. Moving on from this felt like progress and probably was. But now I can acknowledge that I AM driven after all. (The word I would’ve least applied to myself). Not career driven, but that itchy scratchy restless ‘which thing is the best use of this piece of time’ driven. Although I thought I was great at retreat activities, it turns out I either can’t settle to them for long, or when I do, I have sneakily assigned them a purpose. Yoga because my back hurts, meditation to relieve my muscle tension, etc. Thankyou Puttylike for some very helpful thoughts in this post and others. My worth is not affected by what, or if, I achieve. (Repeat to self whilst lying under a tree)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      ahaha, this is perhaps my favourite comment ever.

      In the interests of respecting your personal data, I would like to make it clear that I am not spying on your mind or soul. ;D

      Really happy you related to the article so much! Similarly I very much relate to your comment – everything from the procrastinating-laziness to the sneaky-hidden-purpose in my rest time. Good to know I’m not alone either!

  13. Harald says:

    Neil, when you say “my brain doesn’t want me to fall behind”, I immediately ask myself (and now you): Behind what? What is the point of reference that you could fall behind? Isn’t the situation that you describe also known as “Fear of missing something important” (FOMSI)? And my question is: What important thing and why? The article isn’t too specific about this.

    Of ocurse, it gives the general reason of solving problems. It is always a good idea to solve problems – unless solving problems is, in itself, the problem. Although, I cannot fully agree that retreat isn’t supposed to solve our problems.

    It solves a vital problem: the problem of our energy being nearly – or even totally – exhausted. We are finite beings. We have no cheat codes. We are not playing life in god mode.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely, Harald, I totally agree!

      I think my line about “retreat not solving our problems” is a response to my own brain’s tendency to define problems restrictively: i.e. missing out the vital problem you describe! So I agree completely :)

      Similarly, my brain has a picture of how things “should” be, and it’s this that it tries to stop me falling behind. But that’s an unwinnable game: no reality can ever be so perfect that I couldn’t picture a better one. And if I’m comparing to THAT, then my brain will never let me rest…

  14. Maria says:

    I am really trying to not feel guilty about taking time where I do nothing “productive” because I know how important it is for wellbeing. It’s soooooo hard though. I think I just have to keep reminding myself that no-one’s going to appear behind me telling me I’m a bad person for taking time to recharge. I hope that eventually I won’t feel like I need to justify it, that, with practice, I’ll feel justified all by myself. Thanks so much for writing this, I think it needs to be said, again and again.

  15. Joanne says:

    Do you recognize when you haven’t been taking enough time for yourself? How do you make space in your daily life?

    When I haven’t taken enough time for myself, I can feel that I’m generally off physically and mentally. I’m less willing to be patient with my clients, sometimes more defensive to clients and/or coworkers (which is not very good), and less cheerful. For the most part, I just watch youtube videos that will nurture my soul and mind, but going out on nature with some good music cures everything.

  16. Victoria says:

    I am so glad I came across this. I have been feeling just like you describe recently. Luckily, since I’m a student I’ll have the summer off to relax. I just have to remember to actually relax. I tend to always want to learn something or do something, but I think that right now the best think for me to do is retreat. Thank you for reminding me of that!

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