In Search of Downshifting, or How to Be More Like My Dogs

My first two posts in this series on living a long and healthy life focused on moving naturally throughout the day and holding a strong sense of purpose. This week and for Part 3 of this series, I am focusing on downshifting. The Blue Zones research suggests that people in the longest living societies find serenity on a daily basis. The Nicoyans of Costa Rica, like people in many societies where the weather is extremely hot, rest each afternoon. The Seventh Day Adventists in Southern California’s Inland Empire create a “sanctuary in time,” halting activities from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. The lesson is that this downshifting, resting, and stepping back from the craziness of life helps us to live longer and better.

There’s more and more science about the restorative and regenerative powers of sleep and rest. Most of the world’s best athletes are outstanding downshifters, making extraordinary time for recovery, especially when they need to be at their best. Researchers say that rest tamps down inflammation that impact all of us, and getting enough of it promotes the health and longevity of our muscles, joints, and even our brains.

My dogs are amazing downshifters. I mean, they spend 80% to 98% of their day in a fully downshifted mode. We adopted our two Scottish Terriers (Duffy and Maggie Mae) almost two years ago (raise your hand if you too have a COVID dog/cat/something), and they have been a great presence in our life. They look like toppled over Monopoly dog pieces when they are downshifting, which I still find hilarious. And they need that energy to gobble up their food faster than contestants at a hot dog eating contest, so they can lose their minds with a barking bonanza whenever the mail carrier or Amazon person approaches our door, or to give futile chase to the squirrel that torments them daily in the backyard. If downshifting is the key to a longer life, they are going to live to be 30,000 years old.

I’m not even close to being as good as my dogs at this downshifting stuff. My idea of a fun vacation is to wake up early, do tons of new and exciting things, wear myself out, and do it all again the very next day. The only reason I’m not a total zero is because I love a 20-minute nap. If I can sneak in a short power nap, I am way better in the afternoon, and I might even stay awake past 9:00 at night. Crazy! But 24 hours of downtime? Sleeping more than six hours? Meditating or just being?  While I’m not giving up, it has not happened for me yet.

My job as a teacher, principal, and superintendent took as many hours as I would give it. Ask any teacher or administrator – no matter how many hours you work in a week, it’s not enough to do everything that needs to be done. To stay somewhat healthy, you have to make a conscious decision to stop working at some point and pivot to the equally important job of taking care of you.

But downshifting is critical. Most of the time, my version of downshifting was just not doing work. When I came home at night – it might be 6:00, 7:00 or 10:00, I tried to be off email for the rest of the evening. There were emergency exceptions, but I worked to be present at home and not to have my head back at work for those few hours, or minutes, before going to bed. And on the weekends, I always tried to make Saturday a non-working day. By Sunday afternoon, I had to get ready for the week, but my goal was to enjoy a good 24-36 hours without working.

But, I wonder if I was actually downshifting in that time. Unlike my dogs, I spend most of my non-working time being active – cooking, golfing, doing something with the family, cleaning or organizing the house, exercising, and maybe watching a movie or sports event on TV. Do those count as downshifting? Are those activities fighting inflammation and making me healthier?  

Robbie Shell from the Wall Street Journal wrote an article that hit home when he said, “One of the major joys of retirement has been the luxury of spending more time on those things I look forward to doing, with no deadlines to rein me in, no obligations that require me to make those hard choices about how to spend each day.” I’m not sure if this counts as downshifting, but it is an improvement.

One area where I may have made a little progress is my purposeful effort not to rush from one activity to the next. Athletes sit on the bench between quarters. My dogs sleep for about four hours between their activities. Over the last few months, I have learned to take a moment, relax, and actually get ready for whatever is next. I wish I would have done that more at work. Too often, I went from meeting to meeting to meeting, never pausing to think about next steps, to recover from a challenging conversation, or to just step away from the mania. I thought I could do all of that when the day was over. But now, I am allowing myself more transition time instead of rushing like a transitioning triathlete between the swimming and biking segments.  And I can honestly say it definitely makes life a lot more sane.

I’m also working to follow Shell’s advice and give myself permission to take more time while I’m engaged in what I will call a downshifting activity. Again, I’m not sure if this meets the Blue Zones definition of downshifting, but would be progress for me. My friend Karen made a spectacular dinner for us a few weeks ago, and told us she had spent the entire day cooking and she had loved every minute of it! That has to count as downshifting, right? If I have the time, I want to give myself the luxury of not rushing to cook dinner. After a wonderful night at a restaurant with friends recently, my friend Kevin lamented that he wished we would have ordered dessert and coffee. He didn’t really want dessert (I always want dessert), but he enjoyed the conversation so much that he wished he had used that excuse to prolong and luxuriate in the experience. That has to be a downshifting mentality too. Right? For now, I am declaring it to be so.  

Ultimately, I seek to be more like Duffy and Maggie Mae in my mastery of downshifting, but I have a long way to go. Wish me luck.

Mike

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We adopted Duffy and Maggie Mae on Mother’s Day in 2020.

Sources:

Fast Company: Why Pro Athletes Sleep 12 Hours a Day

Shell, Robbie. “Taking My Time is One of the Pleasures of Retirement.” Wall Street Journal. April 17, 2022.

Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Society. Washington, DC. (2008).

Other Notes: Sections I Cut Out to make this post just a little too long instead of way too long.

11 thoughts on “In Search of Downshifting, or How to Be More Like My Dogs

  1. Mike, I really enjoyed this post as I too am approaching retirement on May 27! You might enjoy Juliet Funt’s A Minute to Think – she addresses the benefits of taking downtime between work meetings and activities. Her book certainly made me think!

    Michelle

    1. Thanks, Michelle! Love the title, and your suggestion is now on my list! And May 27! Wow! That’s really soon. Congrats.

  2. I so enjoyed your commentary on Duffy and Maggie Mae and their downshifting modeling . The visualization of toppled monopoly pieces was delightful! The picture of them at the front door is priceless.

    My pre-pandemic puppy is 80 pounds of golden love — and I’ve learned so much from him. I admire his ability to sense emotions and respond appropriately (except maybe after too many zoom calls), learn new tricks and find endless fascination in a single tennis ball. He helps me downshift — unless we are walking! 😉 Thank you for this engaging and thoughtful series. Following your journey into downshifting is a roadmap which is far more beneficial than any guru citing the benefits of some elusive state of mind. Thank you for sharing your downshifting with insight and perspective in such an inspiring and realistic way.

    1. Thanks, Birgitta, for reading and for your kind comments. Percy sounds like an outstanding downshifter, and it looks like’s he’s helping you do the same.

  3. I unsuccessfully tried to attach a photo of my downshifter, Percy. But imagine me writing this with my coffee in hand before the craziness of the day. Next to me is my beautiful golden curled up on the couch. His eyes open only to investigate whether a squirrels antics in the backyard are worth leaving his comfortable slumber on the couch. 🐕 🛋

  4. In retirement, I’ve shifted to more “want to’s” rather than “have to’s.” The pleasure counts as a downshift, I think. I just finished long arming a charity quilt. Both my mind and my back tell me it’s time to sit quietly looking out the window at the lake. Maybe I’ll read a bit of The Bomber Mafia because I want to.

  5. Dogs can teach us a lot. I suggest Dave Barry’s book: “Lessons from Lucy.” As a matter of fact I’ll GIVE you my copy. Lucy is Dave’s dog.

    Rosemary and I raise our hands as Covid “doggers.” Izzy the Golden Retriever moved in with us on 6/29/2020 at a little over a year and a half. You might like to know she was brought to us by Lori Miller, Marjorie Hanson’s daughter, a pro dog trainer whose client could no longer keep this wonderful dog,

    ill Bryson’s: “A Walk in The Woods” is hilarious and if I still have my copy I’ll give that to you also. Just let me know how to effect delivery of both books or either.

    “If I had more time this would have been better and shorter” – attributed to many and applicable to this message back to you. Yes I obviously read the deletions too.

    1. Bill, as you know, I predicted 3 would dive that far. Love (and I’m not surprised) that you are one! Congrats on Izzy and that’s a very cool connection. I haven’t read Dave Barry in a while, and I’ll look for that. Let me know if you still have your copy and let’s connect via email about that. Thanks as always for reading.

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