The fast-paced, interconnected world in which we have all been living for the last decade or so prides itself on its focus on productivity. From improved worker training to digitalization, businesses will do anything to increase productivity and improve the bottom line. But what we don’t realize is that all of this focus on worker productivity actually pushes them to make decisions and form habits that directly compete with their ability to be productive.
Neuroscience is repeatedly proving that the brain needs downtime in order to recharge energy levels, focus, regain motivation, and solidify memories. The creative, problem-solving parts of the brain are also found to be more active when we daydream, and periods of unconscious thought actually improve decision making.
But this is hardly a new concept. Aristotle celebrated the value of leisure as a cornerstone of intellectual enlightenment, and many periods of astounding intellectual, philosophical, and engineering advancement emerged from “salon” culture and social clubs; these meetings of seemingly idle minds were in fact crucibles of creativity and achievement.
We have likely all, at some point, smashed face first into the solid wall of cerebal congestion, the traffic jam of the mind where so much information demands to be processed that everything just grinds to a halt. It has many names and gradations, from “feeling fuzzy” to burnout, but the root cause is an imbalance in active vs. passive processing, and it leads to an ever-growing task list.
Functional MRI scans show that the brain has a special region, the Default Mode Network (DMN), that lights up like Christmas when we are seemingly idle, when it is engaging in the solidification of identity and memories, the subconscious processing of problems, and the interconnection of experiences. This is where we get epiphanies that seem to come from nowhere.
“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,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “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.”
Studies conducted in conjunction with several Fortune 500 companies have shown that, despite initial worker fears that it would just postpone work, changes to expected work paradigms (such as not working from home in the evenings, not working on weekends, or even instituting a four-day work week), when embraced by workers and leadership, dramatically improved productivity, willingness to work, pride in accomplishments, and job and life satisfaction. It also sharpened concentration, attention, and performance on a wide range of tasks.
Deliberate periodic rest must be just that – deliberate. You must carve out the time, set boundaries, and enforce them (even to yourself), since you’re unlikely to find free time that just falls gently into your lap. You can take small steps (but not too small) to give your brain a break and commit to a program, such as committing to not working on Monday-Wednesday evenings, for just a month.
But even smaller adjustments can have a big impact. Ten-minute micronaps, meditation, or mindfulness are proven to show incredible results, and short breaks to let your mind wander can greatly improve focus and allow your brain to recharge. Walk in a green space during your lunch break or watch nature videos if you don’t have access.
Figure out how to set your brain free periodically, and it will reward you. It turns out that idleness is not the devil’s workshop but rather the creative, innovative, problem-solving, life-loving brain’s workshop!