We know from decades of research that there’s nothing more important than nurturing our relationships for long-term health and happiness. We’re also beginning to understand the significance of uninterrupted downtime — not just for creativity and productivity, but also for developing and maintaining bonds with friends and family.
But far too often we don’t act on these insights. We leave weeks of paid vacation time on the table, instead opting for more work. We eat nearly three-quarters of meals outside the home and 20 percent in a car, knowing that family dinners have myriad benefits. Half of American parents say they spend too little time with their children.
The hospital, by necessity, imposes time for contemplation and intimacy. Of course, it is not an imposition I’d wish on anyone. But still, there is a lesson to be learned: We need to create environments that facilitate downtime with loved ones.
Behavioral science suggests that when there is opportunity for distraction, the human mind will take it. Technology is too seductive; our jobs too demanding. Creating the space for quality time takes work — and foresight.
The trick is to intentionally construct protected spaces that make it easier to spend time with loved ones — places and times where no other options exist. Commit to meaningful experiences far in advance, to guard from the inevitable obligations and distractions that arise. Outlaw phones in particular rooms and at particular times. Create traditions that turn decisions about whether and when to spend time together into rituals of how and where to spend time together. Make it easier to do what’s hard by replacing in-the-moment choices with premeditated commitments.
Because too often we wait until tragedy strikes.
My patient got to narrate only half his life story before his breathing grew so labored he could no longer speak. As his condition deteriorated, I interrupted not excited chatter, but a father and son sitting silently, together. He took his last breath on Christmas Eve.
“I got to know him,” his son said. “I got to know him because I was there.”
Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P. (@DhruvKhullar) is a physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, an assistant professor in the departments of medicine and health care policy at Weill Cornell, and director of policy dissemination at the Physicians Foundation Center for Physician Practice and Leadership.