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Rethinking Downtime… Why our Brain Needs More!

Posted by Dr. Kathy Laster on 06/28/2016

Every once in awhile I’m afforded the luxury of waking up in the morning and to lie there for a while just thinking.  Many insights pop into my head and I am able to work things out in my mind.  Occasionally, some new idea sneaks in and surprises me with its ingenuity. Seems like my best thinking is in the morning after a good night’s sleep.  I have the greatest clarity then, not clouded by events of the day or emotional reactivity. As I was reflecting upon this, I thought about how one of my favorite childhood past times was to lay on the grass in our lawn or on camping trips looking up at the clouds, imagining and making shapes of them.  I loved those billowy clouds on partly cloudy days, so beautiful against the deep blue sky. Add to this thought that I just took 3 different long road trips alone and found the time to think so enjoyable and surprisingly, refreshing and productive.  Now this is saying something for a strong extrovert like myself!

The brain craves downtime!
So, what is the connection between all these random thoughts?  Interestingly, I found the answer in a recent article I read, “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” written by Ferris Jabr . This Scientific American journal article reports that, “Research on naps, meditation, nature walks and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity.  This was great news for me who considers myself somewhat of a workaholic.  PERMISSION to not work 24/7!
In this article, I also realized why, sometimes during the day and typically around mid-afternoon, I’ll often feel the need to get away from my desk…lie down and rest, take a walk outside, or totally distract my mind into a more pleasurable activity.  This practice, when I allow myself the time, does not derail my day and get me off track.  In fact, I end up back at my desk a short while later, with renewed energy and focus.

Here’s justification for guilt-free downtime!
Then why do I feel so guilty when taking these breaks and carving out downtime in my schedule?! Read on if you relate to this at all. What I learned is that taking these breaks and carving out downtime is not only a good and healthy practice, it is ESSENTIAL to performing at our best!  Just as we should get plenty of sleep, we should create ample mindless wandering opportunities for ourselves.  This results in a more productive self, not less!  What great news!  
Our brains actually need downtime to function better. Throughout the day, we tend to build up “cerebral congestion” and our brains begin to have trouble focusing.  I’m sure you’ve noticed it when you are reading something and realize you didn’t absorb what you read, then have to go back and re-read it.  According to essayist Tim Kreider, who wrote in the New York Times: 
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice: it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration – it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Why do we need downtime?
Ferris Jabr eloquently explains…
”Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.  While mind-wandering, we replay conversations we had earlier that day, rewriting our verbal blunders as a way of learning to avoid them in the future.  We craft fictional dialogue to practice standing up to someone who intimidates us or to reap the satisfaction of an imaginary harangue against someone who wronged us.  We shuffle through all those neglected mental post-it notes listing half-finished projects and we mull over the aspects of our lives with which we are most dissatisfied, searching for solutions.  We sink into scenes from childhood and catapult ourselves into different hypothetical futures.  And we subject ourselves to a kind of moral performance review, questioning how we have treated others lately.  These moments of introspection are also one way we form a sense of self, which is essentially a story we continually tell ourselves.  When it has a moment to itself, the mind dips its quill into our memories, sensory experiences, disappointments and desires so that it may continue writing this ongoing first-person narrative of life.”
What are the implications for us as leaders?
A plethora of research studies exist which provide evidence for the necessity of mental downtime.  Implications from these studies give us much to think about in the way we view work.  New information comes to light all the time that causes us to pause and rethink how we structure our workdays and our workweeks. For example, research suggests that to maximize productivity we should reform the current model of consecutive 40-hour workweeks.  And instead of limiting people to a single weeklong vacation each year or a few-three-day vacations here and there, companies should also allow their employees to take a day or two off during the workweek and encourage workers to banish all work-related tasks from their evening. Scheduled time off replenishes our willingness and ability to work, and makes us more productive overall and more satisfied with our jobs. Strong evidence exists that people who work all the time get diminishing returns in terms of health costs and emotional costs.  Since time is such a limited resource, we have to pace ourselves to most efficiently use our remaining and essential resource, energy.

8 Tips for Maximizing our Productivity:

  1. Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night
  2. Use all of our vacation days
  3. Take power naps (10-30 minutes)
  4. Take many small breaks during the day
  5. Practice meditation
  6. Tackle the most challenging task first thing in the morning so we can give it our full attention. 
  7. Takes nature walks often
  8. Disconnect from work during evenings and weekends

While these are very simple suggestions, and things we intuitively know, we move at such extraordinary speeds in our world today that we convince ourselves we are not capable of creating these habits. I hope reading this blog has helped you to find the motivation to establish and truly live these habits!  And to successfully counter our inner voices that tell us to “get to work” or that we are being “lazy.” NOT TRUE! May we all enjoy the guilt-free, productive benefits of creating more downtime in our days ahead!

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