By Annemarie Dooling
March 16, 2021 12:26 pm EST
One secret to achieving more: Finding time to do nothing.
In our efforts to squeeze every second from the day, it seems counterintuitive to watch a pot of coffee boil or gaze out the window. But your brain uses those free periods for important cleanup work, neuroscience research indicates. And during the pandemic, as the boundaries between work and home have blurred, it has become harder to create mental breaks.
Even brief timeouts help the brain reinforce long-term learning and productivity. You come out of downtime able to learn more, and can access that learning faster. “When you take a break, you may want to do something mind-consuming to help with motivation, but technically your best way of taking a break is to do something mindless,” says Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan who teaches a popular online course on how to open your mind to learning.
To ease into allowing yourself to do nothing, start with something familiar. Here are some techniques.
Take a long shower
A natural place to start slowing down is a habit that’s already built into your schedule, such as taking a shower. Letting your mind wander here can be a stepping stone to quieting more hectic environments. Or try blocking off time to look out your window. In her book “How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” writer Jenny Odell describes how bird-watching became her favorite slow-down activity: Exhausted after pulling an all-nighter, she had gazed out the window and noticed a cluster of yellow birds. “I burned out, and in that state of forced relaxation, that happened to be when I noticed,” she says.
Play a game without keeping score
Dr. Oakley points out that while our body’s dopamine reward system might encourage tasks, keeping score is labor. Instead of competing against your crossword best, find a puzzle game on your phone that requires simply swiping.
Take a solo walk
Leave the Fitbit at home, and free up an hour to absorb the scenery in silence. Being in nature has been linked to a multitude of physical and mental benefits. But be sure not to create a competition, which can take the relaxation out of the activity. “We get fixated on taking 10,000 steps,” Ms. Odell says. “Yes, it’s good to go for a walk, but this isn’t a job.” Enjoy the meandering, rather than the race, she suggests.
Cook a big meal
Borrowing from the downtime that the Italians call dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing), the act of cooking a meal can encourage a wandering mind. It can be tempting to create a culinary masterpiece to make the time worth it, but fight the urge. Ms. Odell suggests trying to “see the nonwork time as something other than the negative space left after work.” Try a simple recipe that requires slow preparation. Not only is the activity downtime, but bonus points for resting at the table between courses.
Just sit down
If you’re struggling to get enough rest at night, try a short nap. Simply find a comfortable chair, and breathe. While you’re napping, remember that your brain never is. Rest is one of the most important ways to enhance the neurological flexibility to build the kind of conceptual understanding that is related to identity and purpose, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Consider that a reason to lose the guilt over a daily rest.