Downtime is necessary

Science shows that downtime helps us to be healthier, more focused, more productive and more creative. Yet, somehow, we tend to forget. Not only is it needed for our bodies, but it is also important for our brains.

Many feel like it’s a waste of time if we aren’t getting things done, but research suggests there is importance in giving our brains a break. Our brains can’t handle constant activity.

Even the briefest moments of idle time can lead to necessary self-reflection and respite.

Avoiding brain overload

Well-established research has shown that low-level daily stress can create such intense wear and tear on our body’s physiological systems that we see accelerated aging in our cells. Mindful interventions can help by slowing aging and providing freedom to manage difficult situations.

Research has shown the many benefits of resting, even briefly, for brain health.

One small study published in the journal Cognition found that those who took short breaks had better focus on a task when compared with those who didn’t take a break. Sustained stimulation, the study authors suggested, can cause our brains to become habituated to an activity, eventually leading us to process it as unimportant.

A 2022 meta-analysis published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE looked at how “micro-breaks” can affect well-being. The review found that breaks as short as 10 minutes can boost vigor and reduce fatigue.

Periods of rest can be especially beneficial on long work days. In 2021, when many Americans were working remotely all the time, Microsoft conducted a study that followed two groups of people: The first had back-to-back Zoom meetings, and the other group took 10-minute meditation breaks between meetings. Brain activity of 14 participants in the study was monitored using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

The first group’s brains were filled with cortisol and adrenaline (high beta activity). The other group’s brains were “relaxed” and much lower in beta activity, which shows signs of a reset and less overall stress.

The phone trap

There’s a stark difference between downtime and boredom: The former is necessary to revitalize us, and the latter is an unpleasant state where we want to be doing something else.

While it’s tempting to reach for our phones when we’re bored to avoid this uncomfortable feeling, it is not a great solution to boredom because it is a passive activity. Boredom is really asking you to engage in something meaningful.

New research has begun showing the negative effects our cellphones can have on our health. Phone addiction has been linked to physical health problems, such as eyestrain, anxiety and depression. Recent research also suggests it can affect the structure of our brains.

Not just a modern problem

Our inability to take a break is not a new problem.

In the popular 1994 mindfulness book “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” Jon Kabat-Zinn said we filled all of our waking hours with busy-ness, doing and self-distraction. “Life affords us scant time for being nowadays, unless we seize the opportunity on purpose,” he wrote.

In Thoreau’s Walden, drawn from the two-plus years he lived in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts — he wrote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: ‘What are we busy about?’”

Most Americans think of downtime as something that is indulgent, but research suggests the opposite: Downtime is a basic human need.

Weaving it in

Give your mind and body a reset with these tips.

  • View it as an investment – look at the larger outcome of taking a micro-break now
  • Separate identity from feelings – self-worth should not be defined by how busy you are and the guilt surrounding NOT doing anything
  • Make it harder (create more friction) – learn to create more space by making it harder for you to stay constantly busy
  • Set realistic expectations and contingencies (boundaries) – there will be times when you DO need to be “on alert” but continue to give yourself permission to take a break when you get a chance
  • Focus on nothing. Downtime should leave you feeling rested, regenerated and recharged; it can be simply letting your mind wander.
  • Start small. Sitting still for 30 minutes a day is great, but it’s not achievable for everyone. Start small: The next time you’re waiting for a takeout order or a ride home, don’t do anything. Instead, simply exist.
  • Not sure how to start? lie down. You can achieve deep rest through yoga and mindfulness meditation, but the ultimate method is simply lying down on the floor.

Need help in your creation of downtime? Let’s connect.

metrorun

I work with mid-life men and women who want to feel younger through improving their relationship to food, movement and mindfulness.

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