The Importance of Downtime
by Jamie Spannhake
December 01, 2019
Downtime is necessary to getting anything done. Counter-intuitive, but true. When I checked my calendar today and saw "No events or tasks," I thought "How exciting!" This is rare in my life! I would normally take this kind of day to catch up on everything, and I will do that for part of today. But since I know about the importance of downtime, I will take part of today to rest.
"Why?" you may ask. Because when the brain is resting, it isn't idle, purposeless, or unproductive. To the contrary, downtime improves the mental processes that allow us to live happier, more fulfilling, and less-stressed lives.
Time You Enjoy Wasting Is Not Wasted Time.
In their exceptional book, The Self-Driven Child, authors Ned Johnson and Bill Stixrud explore research on the Default Mode Network (DMN) and expound on the benefits of engaging it. Their focus is on children, but the research applies to everyone.
The DMN is the part of the brain that activates when we are not focused on any particular task, like when we are daydreaming or meditating. Giving our mind time to utilize the DMN is crucial to creatively solving problems. This is the the phenomenon that we experience when we have a sudden epiphany while in the shower or waiting in line. This happens because a wandering mind removes the constraints of time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. The epiphany seems to come "out of nowhere," but in fact it is the result of unconscious mental activity enabled with downtime.
Downtime replenishes our attention, improves our motivation, and encourages productivity. It is also essential to high performance and the formation of stable memories. This allows us to create a sense of self with a moral compass.
Learning Is Improved with Downtime
When we are not actively learning something new, our brain consolidates recently accumulated information, memorizing the most important parts, rehearsing recently learned skills, and etching them into tissue. We depend upon downtime to learn and effectively utilize our working memory much like we depend upon sufficient sleep,
How to Get Your Downtime
Downtime can be scheduled or ad hoc. Either works effectively. Today, when I have a rare day of "no events or tasks," I will take part of today to rest. Maybe I'll meditate, or nap, or sit and look out the window. I'll take time to just breathe. And I'll know that I'm not being unproductive or wasting time. Instead, I am giving myself the gift of rejuvenation so that, when tomorrow comes, I'll be ready and raring to go!
Look at your calendar and schedule in downtime, or just take some time -- ten minutes, an hour, half a day -- here and there, when presented to you, to utilize your DMN and downtime. Yes, you could run to the grocery store after your drop your child at gymnastics or hockey for an hour, or you could just sit in your car and daydream or meditate. At least sometimes, choose daydreaming -- your brain will thank you.
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