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The Answer Might Be To Increase Downtime
I’m not terribly comfortable with many generalizations, but I do feel pretty confident in saying this: Americans spend most of their waking hours preoccupied with work. I mean, how often do we ever really leave work? Even on vacation (when we actually take a vacation), most people will tell you that they take their work along with them in some capacity, even if it’s just checking their email. But, what if our commitment to staying busy is actually working against us? What if our devotion to putting in extra hours actually makes us less productive? What if, in order to remain creative and engaged, our brains actually require a substantial amount of downtime?
“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,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “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.”
While many of us might feel that more downtime is desirable, there is plenty of research that shows that it’s actually vital.
For example, did you know that the brain does not really ever slow down, even when we are sleeping, staring off into space or lying on the couch? There are in fact a variety of mental processes that require rest and relaxation in order to function properly. Downtime is essential to…
- The replenishment of our attention and motivation levels
- Our ability to be productive and creative
- The achievement of our highest levels of performance for any given task
- The formation of memories and ability to retrieve them
When our brain is allowed some freedom to wander, it can connect dots that allow us to learn from our past experience and plan for future experience. In fact, an appropriate level of downtime might even be necessary for us to maintain a sense of who we are and distinguish between right and wrong.
One of the most important bodies of research about the importance of a resting brain centers on what has been called the default mode network (DMN). It appears that the brain is anything but idle when we are resting. Processes are at work that strengthen our sense of self, help us understand the behavior of others, and help support ethical and moral decision-making. In other words, downtime is a chance for our brains to make sense of our world and the multitude of things we learn every day. When we give our brain a few moments to itself, it gallops through our memories, sensory experiences, disappointments and desires and pulls them together in a way that becomes practical and useful.
We’ve all experienced this. Have you ever had a great idea while taking a shower or while out for a run? These epiphanies may feel like they’ve come out of nowhere, but you are actually experiencing the effects of your brains Default Mode Network at work.
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University has spent more than 30 years studying how people achieve the highest levels of expertise. Ericsson has concluded that most people can engage in intense practice for only an hour without rest. He notes that extremely talented people in many different disciplines—music, sports, writing—rarely practice more than four hours each day on average. If they push themselves too hard, they run the risk of injury or burnout.
While it’s unlikely that the typical American workday will get shortened to 4 hours per day, research suggests that we might want to consider re-examining the current model. Perhaps 40 – 50 (or more) hour work weeks separated by busy 2-day weekends (during which we often cram in some additional work) and a yearly short vacation is not the best system.
Vacations are great – they can help us unwind and relax and feel refreshed. However, their effects are short-lived. After only a few weeks of returning to work, most of the positive benefits of a vacation have worn off.
A four-year study at Harvard tracked the work habits of two groups at a Boston Consulting Group. In one group, five consultants took a break from work one day out of every week. In another group, the members scheduled one night during the work week of uninterrupted personal time. After just five months, both groups were more satisfied with their jobs, more likely to envision a long-term future at the company, more content with their work–life balance and prouder of their accomplishments.
The fact is, there are only so many hours in a day, and most of us don’t have more time to fill with work, even if we wanted to. So, if more time isn’t an available resource, perhaps we should turn our attention to something that is: our energy.
So, my question to you is, how can we use this information to improve our own ability to be productive and creative and create places to work that facilitate greater productivity, creativity and satisfaction?