Why relaxing isn't relaxing

The schools in my area are on spring break this week. I am working and, starting tonight, watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. When spring break begins, I feel a sense of relief and success. One reaon is that I’ve made it two-thirds of the way through my son’s school year. Another reason is when there is a school break or a holiday, people are less anxious about their legal issues. I receive less e-mail and fewer phone calls which allows my day to feel more fluid and less disjointed.

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We like to get pinged
Most weeks are disjointed. Life, in general, feels more disjointed. Our attention is rarely on one thing at a time. It isn’t from multitasking, rather it is because there is a “high” that comes with seeing new information. We get a ping for everything. A coupon for 40% off, the top 10 books to read this year, an analysis of the next presidential candidate, a new podcast episode, a comment on your Facebook post, an invitation to attend an event, a new exhibit at the science center, a way to get something for free. The list is endless.

One hit of dopamine, please
Seeing these notifications gives a little hit of dopamine; the controlling force of the brain’s pleasure center. Notifications give us the hit we desire, but it also causes us to seek the same feeling on our own. For example, yesterday I picked up my phone to, well, I don’t remember. I picked up my phone for a specific purpose and I saw a Facebook messenger notification for my book club. I open the message, feel the desire to respond (so the person knows I’m not ignoring their message and so I don’t forget to respond later) and respond. After responding, I skimmed my other messages in case I forgot to respond to one or needed a reminder to do something. Ten minutes later, I look at my phone and have no idea why I picked it up in the first place. And as I reflect on the situation, I still can’t remember.

Getting high at work
What I explained above is not uncommon behavior. It is the current normal. We read something that gets us a little excited and we want to keep that feeling, that high. Advertisers give us a dopamine hit so often that we are so numb to the experience. It then carries over into our work productivity. Or lack of productivity. We see a highly charged e-mail from a client and have to address it “right now”, like it is a fire that must be put out as fast as possible. We see an invitation to a meeting and respond right away even if it could wait until the end of the day.

We bore easily
How often do you spend 30 minutes of interrupted time on one single thing? How about 60 minutes? It feels uncomfortable. Let’s say you need to write a 250-word article for a newsletter. First, it feels impossible to get started. Writing does not give you that hit of dopamine (unless it is commenting on a political Facebook post). Then, 10 minutes into it, you are still not getting that “high” and you are ready to open the internet to get your fix. This is what our brains are telling us to do. And we do it.

Time with myself
This morning I decided to go into the local coffee shop for a cup of coffee. On most days, I place a mobile pickup order at Starbucks, run in and get on with my day. I left my phone in my car because the battery was almost dead, and I was planning to get the coffee to go. Once inside, I had an enjoyable interaction with the barista and they didn’t mind that I had brought my (well-behaved) dog, Hercules, in with me, so I ordered for the coffee “for here”.

Don’t just do something, sit there
The baristas enjoyed petting Hercules and it made me feel good. Herc and I have taken many classes and have completed lots of homework for him to have good behavior in public; watching him get attention was a nice reward. A hit of dopamine. Then I made my way to a table by the window with my coffee. It was a huge mug of coffee and my first thought was I would relax for a few minutes and then get the rest to go. I didn’t have my phone to occupy my mind and no one was interested in petting Herc. My option was to just sit there. Then I realized that “sitting there” is a behavior I don’t practice. When I ordered the coffee “for here”, I imagined relaxing with a cup of coffee, feeling carefree and enjoying the atmosphere. Instead, I wanted a distraction; a hit of dopamine.

Relaxing can be uncomfortable
I have the same experience when I sit down with a book. I feel unsettled, anxious and uncomfortable. It is because it is a rare activity. Again, I imagine relaxing with a good book, curled up on the couch and completely worry-free. Instead I find the book slow and uninteresting compared to all the excitement on the internet.

Relaxing takes practice
Why isn’t relaxing relaxing? Because it is no longer a practiced behavior. It is a rare moment among the constant hits of dopamine. How can we get relaxing to be relaxing again? First, you have to identify what you want to do and when you want to do it. Then consistently practice the behavior. Over time, it will work. It is important to know that the beginning of practicing the relaxing behavior is not fun nor is it relaxing. And this is because it is not a habit, it is a task; it is a to-do. Just like shaping any behavior, it will be hard at first until it becomes a habit.

To get the benefits, you have to practice
I give you the example of yoga. Someone who regularly takes yoga swears by its positive effects. You take a yoga class and it feels long, uninteresting and frankly, a waste of time. If you take a yoga class twice a week on the same days over the lunch hour for several weeks, you will eventually find yourself calm and focused when you go back to work.

Time to practice
If I took my dog into the coffee shop every Tuesday and Thursday morning and had a cup of coffee and left my phone in my car, my experience will eventually be one of relaxation and a time to recharge. It isn’t relaxing now because it isn’t a practiced behavior. A few weeks ago, I started a practice of opening a book on my Kindle app on my iPad whenever I wanted to check Facebook. It would take a few minutes, but I would eventually relax into the book and my mind would be clear of things I “should” be doing instead of relaxing.

Let’s make relaxing relaxing again
Wouldn’t you enjoy it if relaxing was relaxing again? Start with what you are going to do, when you are going to do it and stick with it. Over time, the result can be a relaxing lifelong habit.