In a world that is always on, there is an often overlooked benefit to making time to turn the brain off. And I mean really off, not just the mindless meandering done via a device at different times of the day.
There has been a lot of focus the last few years on the topic of burnout and the mental and physical effect of too much too much. A lot of us can relate to the extended exhaustion that comes from being always on.
I remember hearing someone say, “I’m the kind of tired a long weekend can’t cure.”
Chronic fatigue is more than just a sleep issue. It ties back into the brain. When our bodies aren’t able to reboot naturally, our brain senses the stress and sends in hormones of adrenaline and cortisol in its attempt to be helpful.
And while this does give an energy boost in the moment, when it happens again and again, those helpful hormones begin to hinder our ability to regulate how and when to put the brain to sleep.
The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that sometimes the best thing we can do for our brain is to do nothing at all. I know, I know, it goes against our conditioning. Doing nothing is a state of mind, not a scheduled amount of time.
‘Nothing’ in this context is meant as ‘nothing pre-planned.’ It’s not about having no movement or activity. Rather, it’s about letting your brain shift gears naturally.
One of the ways that neuroscientists study the brain is through functional MRI scans that measure blood flow in the brain. One notable finding from the scans is that when our minds shift into a resting state, different parts of the brain start to buzz together. This is known as the Default Mode Network (or DMN). This is the thinking that happens when the brain isn’t otherwise focused on being focused.
You know those times when your mind starts to wander and you think random thoughts or you remember wild details? That’s DMN. It’s like a waiting room where multiple networks of your brain hang out and then start to bounce off of each other.
All of this science talk is to say that our brain can actually start to help itself when it stops thinking about all the other things that are after its help.
Since you’re already listening to this podcast about doing fewer things better, here are a few thoughts on how to try subtle shifts to see where you might get a brain boost by doing less.
The first is time with no agenda. Time is a gift we give to ourselves and this might require some pre-planning to have open space that isn’t accounted for elsewhere. This means more than just the 15 minutes you’re waiting for an appointment or when you’re commuting between activities. This means pre-planned time with nothing planned.
A 2018 academic study explored what makes people feel time poor or time rich. Professors from two different universities studied 35,000 people and found that most people saw increased satisfaction when they had between 2 ½ to 5 hours of free time in their day.
That sounds like a lot, so I’m going to pause here for a moment to address my skeptical friends.
As soon as you heard that, your brain likely flagged for you why that’s a cute idea but not realistic at all. Before wiping the idea of time with no agenda from your mental white board, try this: Pick an amount of time that feels like it’s simply too much – whatever that means to you. Then split that between two days. It might be more manageable for your brain to allow the idea of time spread across two places. That’s a starter formula.
Now back to all ears: Having open space doesn’t have to be in one stretch to have a benefit. While it’s especially delicious to wake up to a day without a single commitment, there is value in having added breathing room. So instead of making this an aspirational idea of having two to five hours, take a moment to see where there is some possibility of time – any amount of time – in the next five days. Why five days? It’s close enough in the future that you have a sense of the days already and gives you enough room where you can play with the idea of open space and potentially advocate for it.
The second tactic is a simple change of scenery. I live in Seattle and one of my favorite things to do is to be outside every day. Nature is one of the best revisions for your brain because it allows that Default Mode Network to automatically come on while you’re lost in scenery of a different sort.
I also travel a lot, personally and professionally. A couple months ago, I found myself at a gorgeous resort in California for a work event. My portion ended early so I spontaneously decided to stay for an extra day and the physical and mental effects were immediate. As soon as I made the decision, I felt it wash over me.
It’s since inspired me to find other opportunities to get outside of my regular space more regularly. Or to change the direction of our scenery as well. If you have a regular place where you do your thinking (a desk, chair, corner of the world), move it slightly. Turn the desk a bit, go to a different room, turn on or off light. We sink into routine and then autopilot kicks in – kick it back and see where your mind might wander when given an opportunity.
A final thought is to turn off the details. I was talking with a doctor recently during a regular checkup and she asked about my sleep. I quickly quoted her my Fitbit stats on how I’ve been sleeping. She stopped me. Too many of us look are looking at our data and devices, she said. She encouraged me to ditch the tracker and see how I felt when I woke up vs. what the app reported. It’s been an adjustment and has made me more conscious of how much my thinking dictates my feelings.
Yes, some of these things sound really simple. And that’s the point.
Progress doesn’t require a long user manual. Simple steps have power. And the easiest ones to follow are the ones you select for yourself.
More time to do fewer things can lead to time to appreciate more things.
That’s a plan worth trying.
Until then, I hope you also find time to take good care.