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The Case for Spending More Time Doing Nothing

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Thursday, November 3rd, 2022
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Neuroscience research says, simply put, your brain can’t be stimulated or ‘always on’ all the time.

How much time have you spent today completely alone with your own thoughts? We’re talking about minutes where your brain isn’t occupied listening to a podcast, scrolling (engaged or not) a social media feed, or half-watching something on Netflix.

We mean time spent daydreaming or letting your thoughts wander with no agenda or deadline: downtime.

The human brain requires breaks and downtime throughout the day in much the same way our muscles need rest days to recover from an intense workout at the gym.

Taking mental breaks throughout the day (where you’re not solving a problem or learning new information) helps boost mood, performance, and your ability to concentrate and pay attention, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Not taking breaks, on the flip side, can contribute to burnout and chronic stress (and all the health problems that come along with them). Think about how you feel when you try to work a few extra hours over the course of a day and skip your lunch break.

This all has to do with the brain’s default mode network, explains Zachary Irving, PhD, an assistant professor of philosophy of cognitive science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, whose work focuses on the philosophy of mind-wandering.

It’s a concept scientists are still researching, but the default mode network is thought to be the parts of the brain that activate when people aren’t thinking about anything in particular; research has suggested it’s connected to processes like memory, self-reflection, and imagination.

“When your thoughts are not guided, then they can just sort of meander from one thing to another,” Dr. Irving says. “It generates a stream of associated memories where you remember something and then imagine something related and you continue in this passive stream, which is really distinctive of human downtime.”

It’s thought to be responsible for things like understanding our own emotions. It’s also associated with making plans for the future, and, famously, for the “aha” moments associated with creative solutions to difficult problems (the shower is another time the default mode network may kick into high gear for a lot of us), according to work from Irving and his colleagues.

Why Do You (and Why Does Your Brain) Need Downtime?

The default mode network automatically turns off whenever our brains focus on something. And for many people, modern life has made this mental quiet time difficult to come by, according to David Spiegel, MD, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University on California. (The Center’s focus is researching the relationships between social environments, the brain, and the body to understand how stress influences health.)

Thirty, 20, or even 10 years ago, you may have just “zoned out” on a train ride home from work or while waiting in a supermarket line or an elevator. Today, we have these little distraction devices on our person at all times ready to give us something to do, consume, or think about during any extra minute (or few seconds) we have to ourselves.

Just as the brain reorganizes memories and discards unneeded information while we sleep, the brain may need downtime to see connections between what we already know, and new information we’ve recently encountered, Dr. Spiegel says.

We need processing time during the day to synthesize everything that’s happening to us, says Alex Dimitriu, MD, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine physician in Menlo Park, California, who is also an Everyday Health medical reviewer. “With the advent of the smartphone our downtime has been taken away.”

We’ve become so increasingly busy that we don’t take time to give a second thought to the things that stress us out or worry us. That’s a problem, because left undealt with those problems have the potential to grow. And the other issue is that they tend to crop up again when we don’t want them to, like when we try to fall asleep at night, Dr. Dimitriu says.

And there’s evidence, for instance, to suggest that people with clinical depression may have irregularities in their default mode network functioning. There’s also evidence that default mode network dysfunction may play a role in addiction.

This may explain part of why people with these conditions have a tendency to ruminate when their minds are unoccupied — rather than being able to just let their minds wander, Irving explains.

What Actually Counts as Downtime?

Downtime only occurs when the brain isn’t following directions from either your conscious effort to focus, from your emotions, or an outside stimulus, like social media or a TV show you’re watching.

Doomscrolling might feel like you’re lost in thought and not in control, but that’s because your anxiety has taken the wheel and created a state of hyperfocus, Irving says.

Your boss can’t be dictating your downtime (or creative time) either. “It’s important to have autonomy,” says Andrew Brodsky, PhD, an assistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies workplace virtual communication and burnout. “If a manager says what to do during the break, it doesn’t have the same impact.”

Another important caveat: Research has established that being bored isn’t the same as downtime. In his most recent paper on the topic, Irving established that doing something completely mindless, like staring at a wall, did not trigger the sort of freely wandering thoughts associated with mental downtime.

Instead, it seems that a low level of distraction is required — apparently explaining why people have been claiming for decades that all the best ideas happen in the shower.

Are You Getting Enough Downtime in Your Day?

Unlike exercise or sleep, there’s no set amount of downtime recommended by productivity or mental health professionals. The correct balance, Dr. Brodsky says, will depend both on the individual, and the situation. And research has determined that people who work high-stress jobs tend to need more time off to recover. Stressful life situations or events may also up the need for downtime. And some people naturally need more downtime than others.

Pay attention to how you feel throughout the day, Brodsky says. If you feel constantly stressed and unable to turn “off,” you might lack downtime. Or an overwhelming sense of anxiety may make it difficult to focus and engage with new tasks.

In the professional realm, workers might notice they rush through their days automatically, never stopping to think about what to do next or evaluating how well they performed. They might also experience “work-life conflict,” which is when workers feel as though they can’t achieve their goals in one part of their life because another part is interfering, Brodsky says. These are all signs of overwork and not enough downtime. They can happen outside the world of paid work — caregivers also report similar experiences.

Another sign you may not have enough downtime throughout the day, Dimitriu says, is if you experience racing thoughts at night when you lay down to go to sleep.

And finally, yes, it’s also possible to have too much downtime, Brodsky says. This can be incredibly de-motivating, he adds — meaning it actually makes us feel less energized to jump into doing something when there is something to do. (It explains why it might take you twice as long to do the laundry when you have all day to do it compared with when you’re trying to squeeze it into a small window of time.)

How to Make More Time to Do Nothing When Your Schedule Is Already Booked

Most important is to pay attention to your own mental state, Irving says. What counts as downtime for some may not be downtime for others (it depends how engaged your mind is).

If you’re listening closely to a lecture or to music, your brain is working to process outside information. But if you turn on some tunes and an hour later you don’t remember what came up on your playlist because your mind started wandering — that’s a sign your brain is relaxed and generating thoughts on its own. That is downtime.

There are a few things that seem to consistently trigger this state of mind for most people. Try the following:

  • Take a walk. And go without your phone, Irving says.
  • Wash the dishes, take a shower, or do other simple chores. Make sure to do these without turning on a podcast, the television, or listening to music, Irving also suggests.
  • Practice silence. “Silence in any form is tremendously powerful,” Dimitriu says. “I highly advise … 10 minutes of silence.”
  • Take a moment to reflect. Before you move on to a new task, take a minute to breathe and reflect, per Spiegel. If you’re at work, step away from your computer.

One thing you might be surprised isn’t on that list: meditation. While some types of meditation that emphasize mind-wandering may meet the downtime criteria, many common types of meditation are actually the opposite of downtime for the brain, Irving explains.

Sitting and counting your breaths, for example, can be an excellent way to redirect your thoughts and calm your emotions, but it’s not actually freetime for your brain. Rather, these forms of meditation focus your attention and make you more in control of your thoughts (the opposite of downtime). Like doing reps at the gym, it’s good for your health, but it should be balanced with rest.

A few additional tips that may help create more space in your day for mental downtime:

  • Set boundaries and resist the temptation to overschedule yourself at home and at work.
  • Create physical boundaries between your work and living space if you work from home. Have a spot in your house dedicated to work, and don’t return to it when you log off.
  • Set an alarm to remind you to move on to something else if you tend to get sucked into tasks like email or social media. Establish a time for doing these activities, and a time to stop doing them. You can also download and install apps that block sites of your choosing at certain times of the day or week if you find yourself constantly checking your phone.
  • Journal or establish a block of “worry time”; either may be helpful if you struggle with anxiety. “You sit down with a pen and paper and write down what is wrong and what you’re going to do about it,” Dimitriu suggests.

If you are taking time for mental breaks throughout the day, but find that instead of wandering, your brain uses these times to return to the same memory or thought loop over and over again, this suggests your mind is caught up in rumination, Irving says.

While a certain amount of rumination is normal for everyone, extended periods of frequent rumination may be a sign of an underlying condition that could benefit from talking with a mental health professional about it.

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