Before I moved to New York, hours and hours of TV were my mental reprieve after work. My boyfriend at the time and I would plop down on the couch and giggle with conspiratorial glee as we pressed play, and then again when we clicked “Next Episode,” and then again and again. We watched even if we needed the sleep, even if there were other things we wanted to do, even if some part of us knew it made us feel gross. It was just too easy, like a bowl of Goldfish crackers within arm’s reach when you’re famished: not the best choice, but certainly the easiest.
Sometimes easy is what you need.
When I set out to test five popular after-work modes of relaxation last week, that’s the question I hoped to answer. Of all the things I do to “unwind” in the evenings, which actually work, which are just easy, and where, ideally, is the crossover? Today, I watch very little TV. Squeezing an episode into the increasingly small window I have to myself in the evenings no longer appeals to me. Free time feels more precious in this city, with this job, than it did when I worked elsewhere and in slower-paced San Francisco. Every few weeks, though, I tend to spiral out and maybe cry (just a little!) from burnout. Could that be because I never “turn my brain off”? What does that even mean? Thus, five days of forced relaxation began (during what turned out to be an exceptionally busy work week).
Monday: Read a book
Before: Today I left work at 8:11 p.m. Emotional state? On edge. As much as I love my job, New York media is a high-strung industry and the work never stops. The thought of having to pause for an hour to read a book — an activity I’ve long deemed restorative — is making me feel more on edge. I’d rather just get home and keep going, but I know the quality of my work will suffer without a break, so I stick with the plan. By 9 p.m. I’m home and on my couch with a book in my lap. One hour of reading. Just one hour! As soon as I crack the book and return to the story of Jude St. Francis (I’m reading A Little Life, and I’m in the final stretch), my work anxiety disappears. Ten o’clock passes unnoticed. Then 10:30, then 11, and finally it’s 11:30 p.m. and the book is over and I’m sobbing.
After: I didn’t finish the rest of my work — it’s far too late — but I feel profoundly present in my body and mind. Even if the nihilistic tilt to the book made me sad (not a spoiler; it’s sad the whole way through), it made me feel alive on a macro-level, which put the importance of my looming deadline in perspective.
Verdict? Reading worked.
I socialize very little during the week because the thought of having a hard stop in the evening makes me nervous, but too much screen time is its own kind of sanity deterrent, so I make plans to go to my sister’s for dinner on Tuesday.
Before: I leave work around 7:30 p.m. feeling less on edge than yesterday, but still a little uneasy about a deadline. (It was for this story — it was hard to write!) I decide I’ll finish later when I get home. At my sister’s, the hours disappear. It’s so nice to see her, my brother and my brother-in-law. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve had “family dinner,” as we call it, and so it stretches on much longer than usual. By 11:20 p.m. we all crawl out of our conversational cocoon and realize how late it is. Shit! No work will get done tonight.
After: The late hour notwithstanding, I do feel good and energized, better than I did leaving work. This kind of socializing — the grounding, feel-good kind — definitely improved my mood. The only downside is that it turned my brain on, rather than quiet it.
Wednesday: Watch TV
On Wednesday I have plans to get dinner with a couple friends, which I made months ago. As fun as it sounds, by 7 p.m. the plan feels like an imposition on my productivity: I still have work to do and I need to find time to watch TV (lol). The meal is great nonetheless and I arrive home at a reasonable 8:40 p.m.
Before: My roommates are watching Django Unchained. I do not want to join them as I’d rather squeeze some writing in, but I force myself anyway. Time passes…I’m playing around on my phone because the movie isn’t holding my full attention. I spend most of the time in a cloud of guilt because time appears to be slipping through my fingers as I sink deeper into the couch. This is so easy, I think.
After: At 9:20 I decide to stop. Standing up is hard, but wasting time feels worse. When I sit down at my computer, I’m all distracted and in the wrong frame of mind to be efficient.
TV: Not good for me.
Thursday: Go on a long walk
I recently read on Medium that Einstein, Darwin and Nietzsche all took long walks to get in an idea-conducive state of mind. On Thursday, I plan to walk for 30 minutes after work to clear my mind between work and home.
Before: Unfortunately, I don’t get home until 10 p.m., at which point walking alone feels unsafe. Instead, I eat half a pint of ice cream that was left over from my birthday. Eating, I suppose, is another popular form of stress-relief, so I retro-actively decide it will have to stand in for exercise. (An unfortunate swap for my body.)
After: Can confirm, with utmost certainty, that eating is not an enduring form of stress-relief. I feel terrible, but I did get lot of work done today and am therefore less stressed than evenings prior.
Friday: Cook myself a meal
After missing my walk the day before, I decide to get up early and go for one in my neighborhood. Today I’m working from home in Bushwick, and the opportunity to skip my 40-minute commute and stay local has given me a jump in my step. The day feels full of productive opportunity and the walk only intensifies that feeling. Walking = good.
Before: The day is busy and full. By the time the clock strikes 6 p.m., I’m not ready to stop. I know that I should be heading to the grocery story if I’m going to cook, but the thought of cooking sounds like a drag. I’m beginning to realize why I don’t often pursue these forms of “relaxation:” because the time they require cuts into time I need to do the job I love right now.
First 8 p.m. passes. Then 10 p.m. It’s getting later and I decide that finishing my to-do list will be a more effective form of stress-relief than waylaying it to cook. This decision feels like a satisfying exhale. I’m on a writing roll.
After: Objectively I feel lame for working so late on a Friday night, but subjectively I’m overcome with relief. Giving this day completely to myself, from the early morning walk to the quiet span of uninterrupted writing time — not a soul in sight for any of it — turned out to be the most effective form of stress-relief of all.
Although working late to hit deadlines turned out to be the most explicit and productive answer to relieving stress for me, I know that’s not a sustainable approach. On Sunday, I decide to spend all afternoon cooking and baking to make up for it, and the quiet rhythm of chopping, stirring and measuring brings a different kind of quiet to my mind. It’s a similar feeling to the one I got from reading and going for a walk.
In reflecting on the week, socializing, eating junk food and watching TV all had the similar effect of taking the edge off in the moment without offering me any enduring peace. And even if socializing, of the three, is something I actually need, it won’t necessarily stave off burnout. True relaxation, for me, didn’t come from the easy-to-access distractions. It came from listening to myself, and engaging with something I ultimately believed was good for me, and which enabled my mind to wander into interesting corners at its own pace.
The revelations won’t be the same for everyone, but taking the time to explore what did and didn’t actually help my stress-levels, rather than simply reaching for the figurative Goldfish, was a worthy exercise.
Have you thought about this? What truly relaxes you?