By Kristin van Ogtrop
Updated January 26, 2015
José Picayo

Picture this: You come home at the end of a long day. Maybe you’ve been at the office, or shuttling the kids from one activity to another, or running a series of tedious errands. But now you’re home. Ah, home. Doesn’t just reading that word make you feel relaxed?

No? Well, I suppose it is dinnertime. The cat is aggressively meowing to be fed. Someone needs help with math homework. (Didn’t you once know how to multiply fractions?) The dog stands staring at the back door, hoping that you’ll let him out so he can forage in the neighbor’s compost pile. (Maybe that’s just my dog.) There is mail to be opened and socks to be sorted, calls to be returned and groceries to be put away, forms to be filled out and squabbles to be adjudicated—and, of course, a meal to be made.

What should you do? I would suggest going to your bedroom, closing the door, and relaxing. Just for 15 minutes. Your health depends on it.

Several months ago, Real Simple embarked on a nationwide survey with the Families and Work Institute, one of the premier research organizations in the field of workplace and family dynamics. We wanted to study the relationship between women and free time: how much we all have, how we feel about it, what we do with it when we find it.

The results, which you’ll find in “Women & Time: Setting a New Agenda” (page 49), gave me pause. Which is a good thing, I suppose, since apparently many of us don’t hit the Pause button enough. Or as Families and Work Institute president Ellen Galinsky says in our story: “For a while now, we have had a ‘running the marathon’ definition of time, where we think we have to keep going-going-going at work and at home because there is just too much to do, instead of a weight-lifting approach, in which you have a period of rest and recovery before you lift a heavy weight again.”

Back to those 15 minutes in your bedroom and your health. It turns out that putting off free time because you need to address the dishes and the laundry and the mail is a terrible idea. Our impulse is to say, “Let me just finish that fill-in-the-blank and then I can relax.” You might think that we would have learned by now that “fill-in-the-blank” never ends. And as you tackle each chore, marathon-style, your cortisol level stops declining the way it normally should in the evening (page 58), your happiness level is not what it could be (page 64), and pretty soon your head will blow off your body.

OK, maybe it won’t be that bad. But I’m here to say: Leave the groceries on the counter for once in your life. Demand that someone else sort the socks. Tell the kids (or the dog) that you need a time-out. Then go lie down on your bed. Stare at the ceiling (and don’t allow yourself to notice that it needs painting). It may feel as if you’re doing nothing, but you’re actually doing something very good, for your cortisol level and much more.

Do I practice what I preach? Of course not. But starting this month I’m really, really going to try.