If you are among the decreasing number of people who work a steady 9–5, making it home for dinner by 6pm every night, you very likely have between five and six hours between the blessed moment you cross the front door, and when you set your alarm for the next day. For the rest of us with more varied schedules (and/or night owl tendencies), there is still plenty of time available in the evenings, although we may more acutely feel the squeeze between wanting to maximize our “me” time and going to sleep at a reasonable hour. I recall coming home in the evenings early on in my PhD, and crumpling on my couch, zoning out watching TV as I absentmindedly ordered pizza, just lying there for hours on end, until I would crawl into bed, exhausted from the entire ordeal of the day, and dreading having to do it all over again.
I was doing a fairly good job of crafting a morning routine that allowed me to feel energized and also be productive at work, but after 8–10+ hours in lab, I was completely spent, and couldn’t muster the energy for much of anything. I was neglecting to take care of myself in the evening hours by putting all my focus on how I felt and what I did in the mornings after waking up. All the lemon water, meditation, and yoga couldn’t prepare me for the feeling of wanting to zone out at night once I got home. I realized that I was shortchanging myself by failing to plan for the inevitable drop in energy that comes after a long day, and without a plan, I was adrift in a sea of DVR shows, and takeout. I committed to putting in as much thought to my evening routine as I did to my morning one, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Even though I still routinely work long hours, I spend more time in the evenings actively engaged in meaningful activities that bring me joy, rather than zoning out in front of the TV. By utilizing the time that would have previously been spent scrolling through headlines on my phone on things that are truly restorative, I not only feel better, but have more energy to pursue my passions such as writing.
To truly make the most of your evenings, allowing you to emerge a more rested, relaxed, and fulfilled individual ready to tackle on the next day, you must first decompress.
I have had to repeat the mantra ‘I am a human, not a robot’ to myself more times than I can count, because as trivial as it may seem it is important to recognize that it is perfectly normal after a long day of work to feel tired and want to mentally check out as soon as you walk in the door. The important thing is to recognize that this strategy whether conscious or not is actually detrimental in the long run if that is all you do. Yes, your body may be resting by lying on the couch for hours, but it is likely not truly restorative. In fact, this very outlook is what personally contributed to my unhappy situation in the first place because without anything to look forward to, all you end up doing is working a lot, and then, well just existing until you wake up the next day and do it all over again. Remember the saying, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Well it’s absolutely true. With that being said, decompression is vital. This transition period from the stressors of the workday to whatever meaningful activity is planned for the evening is necessary to allow your body and mind to take it easy. I accomplish this by coming home, and changing into my pajamas first thing, and after letting my dogs out, settling in my couch to watch TV with them by my side. I typically watch one hour-long show that I have previously recorded. My brain gets a rest, and because I know I have made a pact with myself to plan meaningful and non-screen related entertainment as a part of evening, I feel zero guilt in indulging for the first hour of my evening at home.
Once you have rested your mind and body from the stressors of the day, partake in an activity that allows you to indulge your creativity, doing something just for you. Cooking and baking are one of my preferred ways to spend my evening hours. In the early years of living with my husband, I developed an intimate relationship with Hamburger Helper. While I enjoyed cooking, I was more focused on getting food on the table quickly, and lacking experience, I usually took the easiest route possible. As I have gotten older and discovered that I feel better when I eat less preservative-laden foods, I cook with fresh ingredients as much as possible. I am not suggesting you whip up a 7-course gourmet meal every night, but whatever inspires you to be creative, do indulge a bit more of that. I have read articles about moms who spend an inordinate amount of time crafting perfect (and adorable) bento boxes for their little one. I do not share the same predilection for turning rice into Pokemon characters, but the way they describe it, it is almost therapeutic. There is room in your life in the evenings to do more of what inspires you and brings you joy, whether cooking, baking, crafting, or writing the next great American novel. Once you have “played”, it is time to focus on rejuvenation to set yourself up for success the following day.
Who doesn’t love to relax, so I try my best to incorporate some facet of relaxation into every evening. In the past, my idea of relaxation was to spend hours trying to get to the next level in Candy Crush. Now I make it a point to put away my phone, and actually do things that are truly relaxing and rejuvenating. For me, few things beat having a cup of hot chocolate while reading a good book. I also make it a point to take a nice, long, hot shower several times a week before bed. Journaling, cuddling with my dogs and chatting with my husband are much more enjoyable ways to unwind than staring into the unforgiving blue light of my phone screen. By the time I am ready to go to bed, I feel like I have made good use of my evening, instead of feeling cheated and resentful that I spent the majority of my hours at work, and everything else was squandered away on less than restorative pursuits. It is also important to remember that even if you don’t make it to all three phases of your evening routine, there is always tomorrow to begin anew. I remember when my stepdaughter was younger, there was definitely less free time to be spent reading, or trying a new recipe because homework was an ever present reality. I also make modifications to my evening routine when my husband is home in the evenings, to spend extra quality time with him. All in all, it is possible to craft an evening routine that fits your current season of life, you just have to make some trade offs (less TV?) and have the desire to spend less time sitting on the couch even if it is just one night a week to start.