I have a brown wicker chair on my back porch. It is nestled in a little nook, shaded by the overhang of my roof and the foliage of Douglas firs and oaks. My neighbor’s water features, two little fountains and streams, gently murmur. One they lovingly call Bird Song Falls. A thicket of blackberries edges the green below me, the undulating shades of grass, mixed in with patches of verdant moss, fed, nurtured, and instigated by the wet Oregon winters. When I sit out there, the ills of the world seem to fade away. I hear the birds in the dell up slope. I leave my computer, phone, and tablet inside. I do not own a smartwatch. There is the occasional sound of a dog or child in the distance, but more often, the hoot of an owl or the wind sweeping through. This is my space. This is my time. Do you have you time?
If you read the paragraph above without pausing to check email or swipe social media, the imagery evoked may have made you breathe deeper. In fact, guided imagery interventions do just that. You read a calming passage and let your body calm down. When your mind and body calm down, when you limit the thoughts of what is due and when the competing demands on your time and mind are rectified, you will feel relief. The problem is that we seldom give ourselves the time to just do nothing. To revel in mental silence. However brief, that silence and freedom from competing thoughts can change how you feel about life, the universe—everything. If done often, you time can certainly help you cope with daily hassles and weekly stressors and boost your productivity and effectiveness. Given that productivity is often needlessly ballyhooed, you time can simply make you feel happier.
Summer looms ahead. For many teachers in the K–12 system and for most faculty in colleges and universities on nine-month contracts, flexibility looms. This is a wonderful period to give extra time to family, friends, and the self. For many it is the only time to get writing done and research moving. Academic years tend to fill every waking moment with something to do: papers to grade, classes to plan, emails to respond to. All that, of course, must be done in addition to the more pressing must-dos of our personal lives. It is especially difficult to get the academic and life work done when there is less daylight and amid suboptimal weather conditions, be it the snow and ice of the Midwest and East Coast or the rain of the Pacific Northwest. Some of us add time to schedules by skimping on physical activity or sleep, or worse, accepting not having mental space. The summer is the time to make up for all that. It is also a great time to build new routines and habits that can live on into the new school year.
One major activity to consider is simply carving out space to process your thoughts. Even when we do fun activities, whether catching up on the new Zelda game, reading a book, or binge-watching a great show, we are often just distracting ourselves. Great books and shows are enjoyable, but this form of avoidance coping often does not allow us to process the thoughts that need processing. Carving moments of silence can.
There has been a lot written about burnout and the need for care in the academy. Recent self-care titles include Unraveling Faculty Burnout and Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included). These are eye-opening reads for sure, but if reading about coping with burnout or self-care is not your thing, borrow a page from health psychology and aim to find moments (or longer) when you cut yourself away from the noise of the world. This noise could be the literal sounds of traffic, construction, or loud music or the noise of divergent calls for your attention. Your phone. The ping of notifications. The urge to scroll, like, post, or swipe.
You do not have to go all Pythagorean. Pythagoras the Greek philosopher thought the path to wisdom was by practicing silence. He advised his students to train by not talking for five years! You do not even have to start a daily mindfulness or meditation practice, though the benefits are well documented (try Mindfulness for Beginners). Instead, start by carving out you time—periods of time in your day when nothing competes for your attention. Not sure how to truly do nothing? Add this to your summer reading: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. There are some effortless ways to do it. When driving home alone, turn off the radio and music and just look around (a good thing to do when driving anyway), paying attention to what you may normally take for granted. Perhaps find your sacred place where you can take in a view, savor nature, or even just sit in your favorite chair and listen, again, with no technology in arm’s, eye’s, or ear’s reach.
If you are looking for a good way into this new lifestyle, consider reading Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise. In addition to great trivia like the Pythagoras story above, the book provides a wealth of ways you can create you time even amid the noise and chatter of the contemporary world. Some of the suggested practices may be familiar to readers who meditate or are self-reflective, but the wealth of anecdotes, coupled with the scientific underpinnings of why each practice matters and how it works, will give you a lot to work with.
Before the new school year starts, create more you time. The practice is easy and requires no equipment, sweat, or preparation. It just needs you to give it a shot. The upside is that you will be more likely to face day-to-day stressors better, find your motivation returning and your desire to get things done increasing, and in general just feel happier. And that is a great thing.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. His latest book is Study Like a Champ. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.