Neuroscience research says that our brains can’t be stimulated or always “on” all the time. We need mental breaks to help boost our moods and increase our ability to concentrate and pay attention.
As I’m writing this my mind keeps going back to all the things I have on my plate and everything I should be doing. But in all honesty, all I want to do instead of being productive is to scroll through Pinterest or play a mindless game on my phone. Is that downtime?
Psychologist Scott Bea says that downtime sometimes gets confused with leisure activities. (Why20) Going to a museum, doing a puzzle, reading a book, catching up with a friend are some wonderful ways to spend your free time. But they’re not true downtime, in the mind-wandering sense. He also says that watching TV, scrolling through social media or playing games on your phone don’t count as downtime either. (What???)
“These activities all require processing information — and part of the reason we need more downtime is that we’re doing way too much processing already,” Dr. Bea explains.
What is Healthy Downtime?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, downtime is taking mental breaks throughout the day where you’re not solving a problem or learning new information. Doing this can help boost your mood, performance, and your ability to concentrate and pay attention.
It’s kind of like working out at the gym. After an intense workout, our muscles need a rest day to recover.
Zachary Irving, PhD, is an assistant professor of philosophy of cognitive science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His work focuses on the philosophy of mind-wandering. In his article on everyday health, The Case for Spending More Time for Doing Nothing, Dr. Irving explains, “This all has to do with the brain’s default mode network (DMN).” (Penrod, 2022)
DMN is a concept that scientists are still researching, but the default mode network is thought to be the parts of the brain that activates when people aren’t thinking about anything in particular. Research suggests it is 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.”
A Modern Life Hazard
In the book Comfort Crisis, by Michael Easter, the author explores the idea that our modern lives are making us more prone to being unhealthy and unhappy. Easter says, “We are moving about 14 times less than our ancestors. We spend 95 percent of our time indoors and spend 11 hours and 6 minutes a day engaging with digital media. So, we went from never having these digital media in our lives to now it has essentially become our lives. And that’s had consequences for our attention, or awareness, how we spend our time and our interactions with others. Things have really changed, and we’re too comfortable now.” (Easter, 2021)
To activate the DMN, you need to do less. A lot less. Like “sit and stare into space” less. If you have trouble sitting and staring (like I do), experts suggest trying a mindless task, like vacuuming or weeding. I’m a big fan of getting out into nature and going for a walk, but whatever you do, pick something that doesn’t require your brain to do much work. Then, let it meander.
One of the things I like to teach in our Digital Wellness module is that social media, digital interaction and leisure activities are okay. But like everything, moderation is essential. It’s okay to play video games, but it’s not okay to play video games all day long.
Become a “day dream believer”
We all only have 24 hours in a day. When you factor in the essentials, sleeping, eating, etc., that leaves us with even less time. With our busy and chaotic lives, it can be hard to find time to activate the DMN. Here are some suggestions to help become a “day dream believer”:
- Take a walk, and go without your phone or at least keep your phone in your pocket.
- Wash the dishes, take a shower, or do other simple chores. Make sure to do these without turning on a podcast, the television, or even music
- Practice silence. Silence in any form is tremendously powerful. There is a quote that says “True friendship comes when the silence between two people is comfortable.” You can count this as silence within yourself.
- Before you move on to a new task, take a minute to breathe and reflect. If you’re at work, step away from your computer.
- If you are as busy as I feel most days, there is not a lot of time to let your brain relax and recharge. Start with a few minutes and work up to more time.
- Make “worry appointments”. I had a student that would perseverate on things and worry about everything. We set aside a time every day that the student could come to me and express all of the worry. If you find yourself worrying during other times — like mind-wandering moments — remind yourself to postpone the stress until its regularly scheduled appointment. It gets easier with practice.
- If you find it hard to be idle with your thoughts, try guiding them. A mindfulness app can help you tune in to your surroundings. I love the Calm app, and use it daily .
- Have good sense. Having difficulty daydreaming without dwelling on your troubles? “Pay attention to your senses rather than your thoughts,” Dr. Bea suggests. “Listen to the birds, or focus on the scent of a candle.”
Healthy downtime is essential to our everyday wellbeing. Start now, and begin to notice the positive changes you’ll experience in your life.
Easter, M. (2021). The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. Rodale Books.
Penrod, E. (2022, Oct 28). The Case for Spending More Time Doing Nothing. Retrieved from Everyday Health: https://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/the-case-for-spending-more-time-doing-nothing/
Why Downtime Is Essential for Brain Health. (2020, June 2). Retrieved from Cleveland Clinic: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-downtime-is-essential-for-brain-health/