This fall, “open” your schedule to opportunity

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I face the summer with child-like joy thinking of all the possibilities that lay ahead to explore, create, rest, visit with friends, read unopened books, and hike when days are longer and our children’s weekly obligations are put on hold. This newfound space in our calendar offers opportunity for our overstimulated brains to have a chance to disconnect from expectations and engage in things that are purposeful to us. We ignite creativity, build connections with each other, and restore our sense of self. While I rarely get through my lofty summer wish list, I always have a sense of accomplishment and peace as summer fades.

When cooler air and shorter days signal the return of busy routines, the time we have to focus on ourselves also decreases. We fail to remain mindful of the positive recovery we gain when we allow ourselves moments of connection and rest. “Taking space for yourself, showing up for yourself is setting the example that my well-being is important,” advocates Mika McLane, Creative Arts Therapist and Psychotherapist at Westchester Creative Arts Therapy in Cross River.

Why do we settle for summer breaks, holidays, or remnants of time in our life to give ourselves the space to do what feels fulfilling and restorative? By purposefully incorporating moments of unstructured time in our week we can engage in activity that helps us ground and grow throughout the whole year, not just during the summer months. “With consistency, [your brain] begins to form new connections, increasing those neuropathways into believing your well-being is of value,” McLane adds. One of the best things you can add to your routine this fall is consistency in your calendar where you give yourself permission to “do nothing”; an unstructured time where you prioritize yourself, your interests, and your well-being.

What is unstructured time?

Simply put, it is time set aside that has no prescribed purpose. It sounds easy, but can be difficult to implement as the world of expectations, errands and electronics pull at our desire to be productive and engaged at all times. Productivity has become our new currency and “doing nothing” seemingly brings no value. In a world that drives at an unsustainable pace, letting our mind rest is a powerful modality of self-care that actually strengthens our ability to combat demanding lives. “There is always something that needs to be done and accomplished,” McLane reminds. “Why not start by giving ourselves the opportunity to center so we are better equipped to take on the ‘have tos’?”

What are the benefits of unstructured time?

When we are encouraged to ask ourselves what we want, we develop a better sense of self-awareness, regulation, and respect. We reconnect to who we are outside of expectations and promote our interests on a personal level. The anticipation of self-care brings a sense of peace throughout the week, knowing that you have established time to restore. Think of how you feel on those “bonus days” when you have the space to fill your day how you want. The optimism of that openness feels so good. Creative thoughts start to flow. Confidence builds as self-led time allows us to set goals within our range of acceptability and diminishes the risk of failure. By “doing nothing,” our brain acquires the calm it desperately needs, leading us to regulate emotions better, strengthen our focus, and reduce stress.

A few minutes spent outdoors can make a world of difference in your well-being.

How do I incorporate unstructured time into my week?

-Start small. Find a time that makes sense for you and your family during the week and block out 30 minutes to start. Everyone is encouraged to use the time in a way that best suits them; however, incorporating outdoor activities is often helpful as temptations to complete chores in the house or use electronics are put at a distance. Sitting outside and listening to nature, going for a light walk, visiting with neighbors, and playing with a pet are all great first steps to incorporating this space. Utilize the power of North Salem in supporting this goal, as bucolic spaces offer a connection to nature with many parks and trails to explore. Over time, you may find you enjoy light reading, puzzles, or rediscovering a hobby. Write, draw, or listen to music. Call a friend and really focus on the conversation. Shoot a few hoops. Swing in a hammock. Garden. Ride a bike. Grab a light snack at Harvest Moon, Union Hall, or Hayfields. Give yourself the permission to find and create your own joy. As this time becomes more routine, the ease of finding things you want to do and the positive feedback your body and mind feel will have you expanding your allotted time.

-Set realistic expectations. Our society values productivity and we all create a schedule that supports our desire to feel accomplished. We have difficulty quieting the shame we feel when we are “doing nothing”. Be kind to yourself as you implement this process.  McLane confirms that allowing for personal space in busy schedules “always takes a conscious, concerted effort.” Remember that you are giving yourself this time because you (and your family) are deserving of self-care and the benefits that come along with it.

-Mute the “To Do” list. There will always be a long list of things that need to be accomplished. This is not the space to cross them off. It may feel uncomfortable as you practice letting them wait. McLane acknowledges the difficulty and encourages you to “choose to prioritize yourself.” When we add unstructured time to our lives we are accepting that we cannot do it all and are deserving of brain breaks. This is especially important for children as the barrage of electronics and unyielding schedules overstimulate their central nervous systems. Self-directed play “is an opportunity for kids to problem solve and practice simply being, as opposed to doing. It breaks the pattern of constant stimulation,” supports McLane.

-Make it accessible. Be understanding when some weeks are busier than others. To keep the consistency, try to find ways to still incorporate these experiences when you can. McLane offers, “for those times you can’t schedule a block of time, opening space can look like waking up early to enjoy coffee or tea in the quiet, taking the scenic way home and playing music you love, having your journal in the car to free-write when you are in the pickup line or leaving 15-30 minutes early to meet with friends.”

-Put the electronic devices away. We are so used to scheduled activities and apps creating the flow for us that having the expanse of free time may feel unnatural at first. Our brains need the rest. Electronics, while seeming to offer an escape, continue to stimulate our brains outside of our own direction. It is important to make sure this time doesn’t feel like punishment by taking devices away. If you or your child need the support, allow for a few minutes of device time before or after.

-But, I’m bored! It is essential in these moments of frustration to remember that boredom is a vehicle to create our own happiness, enhance inventiveness and develop self-reliance. Let yourself and your child be challenged to create a new set of resilient skills as you work through the process. Resist the temptations to manage (or “help”) boredom as you may be taking away an opportunity for great personal development.

Is it all easier said than done? Yes and no. We give ourselves permission in the summer months because the calendar and longer days supply the space. Why not give ourselves the space and approval for self-care all through the year? Establish this purposeful time each week to engage in all the things your heart wishes for. Your brain and body will thank you. “Hold onto how good it feels when you make time for yourself and be conscious of that effort. Take credit and be proud of yourself for making the time,” champions McLane. See what possibilities await as you give yourself the time to connect to your natural world, your community, and neighbors, but most importantly to yourself.

Here are a few suggestions of local spaces where you can “do nothing”:

  • Rest by the peaceful stream in Lances Preserve. There are a few large rocks along the stream’s edge that create the perfect place to sit and disconnect. Bring a book along too!
  • Hammond Museum offers a gorgeous landscape to inspire Plein air painting, photography or sketching.
  • Take your kids or pets for a walk along Vails Lane.
  • Hayfield-on-Keeler is an open space that is perfect for an easy walk. I like to stop every few minutes to position my face towards the sky, take a few deep breaths and do yoga stretches.
  • Use the picnic tables behind Ruth Keeler Library to free write, do crosswords or Sudokus. This is the perfect place to bring the kids along. Grab a book or activity bag from the Children’s Department. The grassy area is a terrific place for them to play or read.
  • Visit one of the many establishments in Croton Falls to grab a small bite to eat. As you walk along Route 22 towards the gazebo, connect to creativity along the way as you pass many art studios. Spend some time in the green space thinking of ways you like to be creative! The gazebo’s bench offers a great seat to knit, crochet, or embroider.
  • Grab a friend and take a walk down the many trails at Mountain Lakes. The open fields are a fabulous place to toss a frisbee or lay a blanket down for a picnic.
  • Go bird watching in Baxter Preserve. As the leaves fall, look for migratory birds that may be passing by.
  • Gather a few friends to play a game of pickleball at Joe Bohrdrum Park.
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