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The Scientific Case for Downtime

Idle time can help us solve problems, get creative, and process information.

Key points

  • Downtime helps our brain's default mode network consolidate information and solve problems.
  • We spend up to half our work days receiving new data, which means we need downtime to process all of it.
  • Idle time is good for our mental and physical well-being.
Jonathan Mabey/Unsplash
Source: Jonathan Mabey/Unsplash

The prophet Fiona Apple once said, “This world is bullshit.”

What a zinger of an acceptance speech. Am I right?

Decades later, she also said, “Go out and sit on the lawn and do nothing. Cause it’s just what you must do. Nobody does it anymore.”

And she’s right. Idle time is important for our physical and mental well-being, and we just don’t have enough of it in our lives.

The science behind downtime

Writer and artist Tim Kreider explains that idleness is necessary for productivity. Taking a break and doing nothing gives our brains a chance to sift through data, make connections, and creatively problem-solve using our unconscious mind. It helps us store and consolidate memories. Downtime may even help us be more moral and authentic.

Here’s what the science says:

Ferris Jabr lays out empirical evidence for the importance of idle time in a Scientific American article. An examination of fMRI scans has led to the understanding that even when you’re not deliberately working on a task, your brain is still firing at 20 percent. This is called your brain’s default mode network, and, fascinatingly, it requires less than half the energy of conscious problem-solving.

I think we’re all familiar with our default mode network. It’s when the solution comes to us suddenly in the shower, or we put all the pieces together while driving to work. Your default mode network requires offline time so that its creativity and problem-solving prowess can rise to the level of consciousness.

As Jabr writes, “Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has already learned.”

Anti-resolution resolutions

To that end, I’m not pursuing any ambitious, productive goals this year. I’m prioritizing downtime—naps, sleep, meditation, nature walks, sitting on lawns doing nothing. I’m prioritizing my default network mode and creativity.

  • I resolve not to take on any ambitious goals this year: no new books, no new courses, and no goal weights.
  • I resolve to do no more than one small side project per month. This could be a podcast interview or a business phone call. My full-time job and family are the priority.
  • I resolve to write only one article per month. I enjoy writing but not the hustle.
  • I resolve to sit on the lawn and do nothing.

Sit on the lawn and do nothing this year.

We’re consumed with work. We spend up to half our time bombarded with new data—e-mails, IMs, and social media feeds. And we don’t shut off when the workday is over. Our brains have no time to consolidate information and make sense of the ever-growing data streams.

So we burn out. We quit. Our mental health suffers.

So listen to Fiona Apple. Go out to the lawn and do nothing. It’s just what you must do to make sense of the world and your place in it.

Otherwise, Fiona’s other sentiment becomes way too real. This world really will be bullshit if we can’t be idle and carve some downtime into our daily routines.

References

Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why your brain needs more downtime. Scientific American. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/

Kreider, T. (2012, June 30). The 'busy' trap. The New York Times. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/

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