How to take more time off

We live in a calendar-and-clock societal construct, which pushes us to be productive, even if it causes us stress. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Busy-ness is a scourge of the age.  We all seem to be too busy with something or other, suffering the pressure of time.  How did it come to be like that; and how can we get more time to relax, recuperate, and just be ourselves?


We can perhaps divide life into two phases – pre-civilisation, and civilisation.  Before humans had developed such sophisticated systems of organisation, life was more organised around the rhythms of the individual and the tribe.  As beings, we evolved in relation to the cycles of day and night, and we are therefore bodily attuned to light and dark.  Broadly speaking, when it was dark, we slept, and when it was light, we did stuff.

There was perhaps less organisational pressure, because mutual life developed around what humans do naturally.  Hunting and gathering food involved a cooperative lifestyle (see here for more detail); because ‘clock’  time hadn’t really been invented, timescales were more attuned to how people behave naturally, rather than the requirements of organisational, ‘clock’ time.  Life was also more mobile.

As civilisation developed (maybe from about 12,000 years ago) into a more agricultural model, people began to organise themselves around the curation of herds and crops.  This tied people to their locations in a more static way.  It also meant that, as time went on, there was greater potential to trade in food and other products over larger distances.  Humans developed markets, currency, and also ‘clock’ time, the ability to organise around a man-made time-and-calendar construct.

In this environment, the concept of productivity can arise: people can get as rich as they are prepared to be busy transferring products from seller to buyer.  We became more divorced from the production of the things we were actually consuming.   We still eat food, but most of our day does not involve its production.  We are very indirect creatures, far removed from our original lifestyle.  We are busy doing things that often have nothing to do with what we spent millions of years doing.  Workwise, the faster or more efficient we are, the more money-tokens we make, which we consider desirable things to have.


The tools of busy-ness are really currency and clocks.  Once currencies were invented, people could amass ‘theoretical product’ in large quantities without being near it, and get ‘rich’.  Once clocks were invented, people could organise across distances, coordinating their efforts to gather even more theoretical product in even shorter timescales.

We live in a society that is partly the product of these two developments.  We are born, and then inducted into a life which, we are told, involves a ‘career’ participating in this mutual exchange of currency and organisation.  There are two consequent pressures common to most people:

  1. The pressure to ‘earn’ enough to ‘live’.
  2. The pressure to fit in with the organisational structures inherent in a ‘productive’ society.

So, for instance, a student leaving education is faced with two major questions: firstly, how am I going to earn a living?  And, secondly, how on earth am I going to adapt to the constraints of a productive society (working under a boss; keeping to working hours; submitting things on time; staying healthy enough to work; coping with tiredness).


Viewed like this, it becomes obvious that we are each a victim of societal developments which happened long before we were born.  For us, it’s just ‘the way things are’.  We can be tempted to consider time pressure and tiredness occupational hazards, to be endured ‘just because’.

However, there are a few things we can do to lighten the load on ourselves.  Here are a few brief tips, ways in which we can start to gain better rhythms in our lives, and simulate the old, pre-civilisation days.

  1. Find work that accords with your circadian rhythms (see this link for more information).  If you are a morning person, find early work; if you are naturally an evening person, find work that starts later.  While this is not strictly time off, it does mean that you can rest at times appropriate for your natural inclinations.
  2. Take frequent breaks.  If you are dominated by your electronic in-tray, then there will never be a switch-off time.  You need to dominate the system before it dominates you.
  3. Stop to eat.  There is a great temptation to eat on the job.  But this is yet another abuse of your long evolution.  Teach yourself to focus on your food, or your company, when you are eating.  Work can wait.
  4. Get outside walking or exercising.  The reason this feels so healthy, is because we’ve been doing it for millions of years.  Productive life has forced us into small prisons of physical existence, far from the ability to roam that we probably enjoyed pre-civilisation.  Also, once started, a walk lasts longer than you intend, allowing your body to remove itself from the constraints of organised living.
  5. Put your technology aside now and again.  Technology is responsible for much of our time-enslavement.  It demands that we attend now, be distracted now, do things now, as fast as we can manage.  We need to find regular times to return to natural bodily life without screens, bleeps and demands.


Addiction to a ‘production society’ has brought us many benefits, in terms of improved resources and better health systems.  But the side-effects are in danger of overwhelming the whole thing.  We are in danger of becoming an overstressed species, dependent on mood-enhancers, tranquilisers and stimulants.  In the US, for instance, opioids have become a real problem, with their over-prescription arguably a symptom of our hyper-commercial society (see this link).

So why not begin to destress more naturally?  in particular:

  1. Try to live in tune with your circadean rhythms, not rhythms of productivity
  2. Take frequent breaks
  3. Stop to eat
  4. Get outside walking or exercising
  5. Put your technology aside when you can

You can’t change the history of your species.  But you can act, one step at a time, to mitigate the consequences.