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Expert Perspectives

Design Your Downtime

By Dr. Jonathan Danson, Medcan clinical psychologist

Try these tips to make the most of your spare moments.

Every night, before my kids head to bed,, I stop whatever work I’m doing and spend some time playing or reading with them. Trouble is, I sometimes find my thoughts turning toward work while I’m on the floor with them, messing around with the latest toy. I think about that email I still have to send, or mentally run through the list of clients I’m scheduled to see the next day. I don’t think it’s something my kids notice, but my work-focused daydreaming harms my ability to be as present with my loved ones as I could be.

That all changed when I made mindfulness a regular part of my routine. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware and focused solely on where you are and what you’re doing. Instead of being inside your head, focused on your thoughts, you’re intentionally inhabiting your present moment.

Being present for the people around you isn’t the only benefit of this change of focus. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mindfulness can also reduce stress, which in turn is good for your physical health. It can boost your attention span, regulate emotion and help you better manage negative experiences.

Most of us, however, don’t actually take the time (or know how) to practice mindfulness. My colleague Dr. Jack Muskat, Medcan’s clinical director of mental health, has previously written about how we don’t relax enough. Also an issue for contemporary professionals is what we do with the time that we’ve previously reserved for relaxing. Some of us fill our downtime by thinking about work: what’s coming up, or how to get ahead. Others pick up their phones and scroll aimlessly for 10 minutes or more. Neither activity is restorative or fulfilling.

Which brings up another benefit of mindfulness: The practice of being in the present moment can help us to make the most of our downtime. The idea is to create opportunities for relaxing that actually do relax us, and recharge our batteries for life. 

It’s not an easy task. Mindfulness is a skill, not a trick. You need to practice and build it up over time. You may not feel the results right away, either. But once you do, you won’t regret it.

Here are some simple ways to include mindfulness in your own downtime.

  1. Start with an app. For newbies, I suggest Headspace. Apps create a judgement-free space and provide guided steps that will help you get into the mindfulness groove—helping you get over feelings of not “doing it right.”
  2. Schedule your mindfulness sessions. The best way to get into a routine is to make dedicated space for moments of mindfulness. By actually creating appointments in your calendar, you’ll be more likely to attempt the practice. Avoid scheduling long sessions at first. Mindfulness can be difficult, particularly for high achievers who are used to constantly thinking about the next task. Five minutes of occupying the present moment would be a major victory for the beginning mindfulness practitioner. Then, once you’re comfortable with the short durations, you can extend the practice for longer periods.
  3. Embrace the unplanned moments. Mindfulness doesn’t have to take place in formalized, structured sessions—especially if you’re more of a go-with-the-flow type of person. Instead, embrace unexpected moments of downtime. Have some found time between meetings? Rather than starting on a new project, or opening up Instagram, use those spare moments to take in what’s around you. Going for a walk? Go alone, swing your arms and try to focus on your steps and your breath. Doing your skincare routine at night? Forget about the stresses of the day, and really think about the products you’re using and how they make you feel. If you’re a person who struggles with time management or finds to-do lists daunting, these more informal settings will ensure your mindfulness practice doesn’t feel like a chore.

Mindfulness has helped me personally. Nowadays, when I’m spending that time with my kids, I feel more present. Because I’ve found a way to pull mindfulness into my own downtime, I’m able to enjoy these periods of play a lot more. It benefits my children for me to be fully present for them, but it’s a lot more fun for me, too.

Talk to a member of Medcan’s Mental Well-Being team to discover how mindfulness may be helpful to you. Email mentalwellbeing@medcan.com.

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