Updated: Jan 13
Watching the clouds float by, daydreaming, gazing out the window… When you’re chilling, you may feel like you’re doing nothing, but all the while, your brain is reaping the benefits. Downtime helps your body and mind de-stress and gives your brain a chance to process information from your day—which improves learning. Downtime is not directionless dawdling; downtime is doing you good.
GIVE YOUR BRAIN A BREAK
The brain needs time to rest in order to function properly—to review experiences, assimilate them, and turn them into permanent long-term memories. Rest includes both sleep and distraction-free moments during the day. Scientists believe that when the brain is constantly stimulated, as with the constant use of digital devices, the learning process is impaired.
The antidote is idling—and there’s an art to it. In fact, Tom Hodgkinson built his career around the art of idling. In “10 Ways to Enjoy Doing Nothing” (Real Simple magazine, August 2009), Hodgkinson explains how he started a magazine called The Idler which is published only twice a year.
The art of idling involves doing nothing without feeling guilty. Hodgkinson admits that, like many people, he too felt guilty about doing nothing. At first.
“We are all told that we should be terribly busy, so we can’t laze around without that nagging feeling that we need to be getting stuff done,” writes Hodgkinson. “I rejected my guilt upon learning that Europeans in the Middle Ages felt no shame for lolling about. Their favorite philosopher, Aristotle, had praised the contemplative life, and the monks spent a lot of time just praying and chanting. Guilt for doing nothing is artificially imposed on us by a Calvinistic and Puritanical culture that wants us to work hard. When you understand that it hasn’t always been this way, it becomes easier to shake it off.”
Hodgkinson suggests sketching a flower, going bumbling (wandering around without purpose), setting a day aside for total relaxation, lying on your back in a field listening to birds and smelling the grass, gazing at the clouds, taking a nap, and pretending to meditate so you can stare out the window without fear of disapproval.
David Walsworth, MD, family physician and assistant professor in the department of family medicine at the Michigan State University Clinical Center, acknowledges the need for downtime. “When I talk to executives, they say that they’d be much more effective if they just had time to think,” says Walsworth. “Taking time to listen to your body, consider and reflect is important. Connections to make memory don’t happen instantly—the brain needs downtime.”
DE-STRESS YOUR BODY AND MIND
In terms of stress reduction, however, the type of downtime that’s most effective may vary depending on personality type. “Quiet time alone may be good for certain people, such as introverts,” says Walsworth. For others, active relaxation is just what the doctor ordered.
“I see lots of patients with chronic stress, obesity, complaints of fatigue and pain,” says Walsworth.
“I recommend progressive muscle tightening and release, visualization, breathing techniques, meditation, and discovering the driver of the stress and mitigating that—although that’s difficult to do in this day and age. I also recommend a right-sizing diet and exercise—the hormones released during exercise can help with stress and lower blood pressure over time.”
According to Mayo Clinic staff (MayoClinic.com), relaxation can reduce stress by:
Slowing your heart rate
Lowering blood pressure
Slowing your breathing rate
Increasing blood flow to major muscles
Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain
Reducing anger and frustration
Boosting confidence to handle problems
Experts from the Mayo Clinic note that “…as with any skill, your ability to relax improves with practice. Be patient with yourself— don’t let your effort to practice relaxation techniques become yet another stressor.”