I’m scared of downtime. That’s right, relaxation is downright uncomfortable for me. Part of me craves it like every other human being. Yet as soon as it is here, I twitch. I pace the house. I don’t know what to do with my hands and my legs — even more importantly, my brain. Sometimes the quiet space is too intolerable so I fill it with mindless activities like scouring Facebook or checking how many Twitter followers I have.
My busyness is, at times, a defense mechanism whereby I can prove that I matter and deserve a place among the human race. My brain somehow associates productivity with intelligence, worthiness, and popularity. To-do lists decrease the risk of my annihilation. The more responsibilities, the more emails to return, the stronger the reassurance that I will survive as a middle-aged woman living in Annapolis, Maryland.
Sound crazy? I’m not alone.
Tim Kreider calls it the “busy trap.” In his New York Times piece, he writes, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
But it comes at a cost.
More Is Less
In her article “Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week,” Sara Robinson explains that working a 60-hour week does not get you 20 additional hours of productivity. The numbers are probably closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time because by the ninth hour in a workday, you can only deliver a fraction of your usual capacity. With every hour beyond that, productivity levels continue to drop.
“Without adequate rest, recreation, nutrition and time off to just be, people get dull and stupid,” she writes. “They can’t focus. They spend more time answering e-mail and goofing off than they do working. They make mistakes that they’d never make if they were rested; and fixing those mistakes takes longer because they’re fried.”
Working a lot of overtime also leads to burnout, which brings its own set of problems. “The research proves that anything more than a very few weeks of [overtime] does more harm than good,” she explains.
The Value of Idleness
Most of us think of idleness as sitting in front of our computer watching reruns of the “The Office” while stuffing our face with leftovers in the fridge. It’s what lazy people do. However, the reality is that giving our brains a breather renders surprising gifts. It sharpens our intellect, affords us perspective, and, ironically, makes us more productive. Kreider writes:
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. 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.
What Research Says About Downtime
In his article “Why Your Brain Needs More Down Time”, Ferris Jabr makes the case for the necessity of mental downtime:
Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind. What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day.
Downtime restores attention and motivation, promotes productivity and creativity, and strengthens memory. It can also keep us aligned with our values and provides a stronger sense of self. We are less apt to drift where the wind blows.
Jabr highlights the research of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of California. In a 2012 study, she and her co-authors present evidence that wakeful rest or a “default mode” (DM) is important for active, internally focused psychosocial mental processing, such as recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions.
Apparently the mind solves some of our toughest problems while we are daydreaming. Epiphanies often are a byproduct of downtime, when we let our brains out for recess. When not forced to learn something new or attend to a task, our brains have a chance to do some housecleaning — consolidating the scattered data collected in our wakeful moments and imprinting some of the lessons or information gleaned into our memories.
A Choice of Priorities
In our culture, we have to make a conscious choice to not be busy. Responsibilities and busy work will stalk us at all hours of the morning and night if we don’t erect some serious boundaries. I was inspired by Kreider’s choice to purposely choose time over money. He writes:
My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.
Kreider, T. (2012, June 30). The ‘Busy’ Trap. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/
Robinson, S. (2012, March 14). Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week. Salon. Retrieved from https://www.salon.com/2012/03/14/bring_back_the_40_hour_work_week/
Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/
Immordino-Yang, M.H., Christodoulo, J.A., & Singh, V. (2012). Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7 (4): 352-364. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691612447308
Originally posted on PsychCentral.com.