In response to the popular New York Times article by Daniel J. Levitin, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain,” someone had tweeted: “I would do that more often if the process of booting back up didn't take so long.” My reply to this tweet: "I know what you mean!"
Since then, I can’t get my mind off of the article, which is full of fascinating science and insightful advice; below I share some of my thoughts and reservations.
How many of us regularly shut down or reboot our computers? I rarely do, unless I get what we used to call the “blue screen of death,” a total lock-up that demands a complete shutdown (and a few choice words from yours truly). Why is it we rarely reboot our computers even when we should? Two reasons immediately come to mind.
First, depending on how long you’ve had your computer and how clogged it is with miscellaneous and useless software (and malware), it can take an excruciatingly long time to restart.
Second, we have so many documents, browser tabs, and other items open that we are afraid we’ll lose track of it if we close them all—especially if we don’t get a chance to reopen them until the damn thing restarts.
There are certainly ways to deal with both of these issues, if we took the time and effort, but many of us don’t—and for those reasons as well as others, we don’t reboot our computers very often, if when it will improve performance.
Speaking for myself and, I would wager, more than a few others, these reasons for not rebooting our computers also apply to why we don’t “hit the reset button” in our brains, even when it would help to do so. First, as Professor Levitin notes in his article, we juggle an incredible amount of information in our heads at any given time, far too much to pay adequate attention to (even if much of it deserves very little attention at all). Nonetheless, many of us cling to that constant flow of information as if it were air itself: think of political junkies or comic-book fans who soak up every scrap of information about Halbig or Captain America that comes through the feed or timeline. (Guilty as charged.) Disconnecting from this flow, even for a day, seems torturous, and once reconnected, it can take enormous time to catch up on all the news that we assume we’ve missed. We can wait, of course, but we don’t want to, and it would take a significant effort to change those habits—assuming we even want to.
Not only does it take time to catch up on what we’ve missed, it also takes time to restart our brains in general when we’re ready to get back to work. Personally, I’m envious of people who are so engaged in their current projects, whether for work or leisure, assigned or self-initiated, that they can take time off and then jump back into them refreshed and renewed. As one of my best friends says, borrowing from Russell Covey, you have to take time to “sharpen the saw” in order to maintain your long-term productivity. But this doesn’t work for all people, especially me: if I ever intentionally take a day off, it's incredibly difficult to return to work the next day as I struggle to remember what I was doing and, more importantly, why I was doing it. Like the shark that must keep swimming in order to stay alive, I have to keep working (or trying to work) so I never stop to wonder why I’m doing it at all. Maybe it’s just me and my problems with my work; not everyone shares exactly the same problems. But I have to imagine other people also have difficulties getting back into work after a time away, for various reasons, especially if they’re not completely engaged in work they love. Despite recent criticisms of the mantra of “do what you love,” both in general and with respect to academia, it does help you restart faster after a “reset.” Not all of us are that lucky, though.
What I said above applies primarily to vacations or holidays, several days or weeks during which people leave their work behind entirely in order to relax and recharge. I agree completely with Professor Levitin regarding taking short breaks during the day to let the mind relax, wander, and work on difficult problems. I also appreciate his advice to segment the day, setting email aside while trying to be creative; I try to do that, but have not yet had any luck. (Don’t ask how many times I checked my email and Twitter while writing this post.)
Regarding lengthy breaks, however, my reservation is that hitting the reset button might not work as intended for everybody, at least not how some of us live and work now. Longer breaks from work—and some parts of life aside from work—may work great for some people, but others (such as me) need to make deeper structural changes in our lives, especially regarding work habits and motivations, before vacations become attractive.
Until then, I’ll see you at work tomorrow morning—I’ll bring the coffee.
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships, self-loathing, and other topics, see here.