Sometimes, in order to be more productive, it’s important to make time to do nothing. While this may sound counterintuitive, neuroscience research has shown that our brains use mental breaks to do important cleanup work. Even brief mental breaks can help the brain reinforce learning and increase productivity. Unfortunately, about 60% of people find it difficult to unplug and unwind. For many of us, our schedules are jam-packed. When we aren’t submerged in the chaos of daily life, we believe we’re relaxing while scrolling through social media or watching television. However, mental breaks that improve mental health come from quiet moments that allow you to enjoy life’s simplicities.
A 2019 study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people’s downtime preferences have changed in recent years, and that most people would rather take part in any activity other than sitting with their thoughts. On top of this, technology has made people easily accessible to others at all times—through text, email, phone calls, and social media. With work and home boundaries blurred due to the pandemic, it has become increasingly difficult to draw the line between being “at the office” and taking time for ourselves. It might be unimaginable to think that a task as simple as, say, birdwatching, could actually help improve our productivity, but according to neuroscience, it’s exactly what our brains need.
To give your brain a break, take a walk, meditate, cook, color, or simply go for a drive. While engaging in these activities, take note of where your thoughts may travel. If they start to wander towards a to-do list, a past conversation, or work matters, bring them back to the act itself. For example, if you go for a walk, leave your phone at home and focus on your senses—touch, smell, sound, sight, and taste—to feel more grounded.
In short, allowing yourself to do “nothing” gives your body time to heal from a cognitive standpoint. In the absence of these breaks, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are prone to creep up. Below are four ways that giving your brain a break can help change your mindset.
1. It gives your body and mind time to heal while reducing stress.
As mentioned earlier, neuroscience research has found that the brain needs breaks to repair itself. Think about it this way—when the pandemic hit and the world shut down, nature was given the opportunity to heal from the damage. Without all of the man-made pollution, wildlife began to appear again in areas they had previously vacated, such as the Venice canals. The same sentiment applies to your brain. Aside from giving you a brain reset, breaks also decrease stress, which is incredibly detrimental for mental health, physical health, productivity, and so much more.
2. It helps you gain perspective.
When you take time to slow down you can appreciate things you may otherwise miss. Focusing on what you do have rather than what you do not decreases anxiety and racing thoughts. When you quiet your mind, you realize what is truly important to you without distractions that generally tie up your thoughts. There is a reason why many people step away from things they’re working on and come back to them at a later time. Taking a break and returning to a task or issue can give you a new perspective and mental clarity.
3. It will improve your outlook on life, making you less judgmental and more positive.
Taking time to relax will bring about a more positive mindset. You may not always notice when you’re getting run-down, but it can appear in the form of judgment, frustration, or anger. At that point, gratitude has been thrown out the window. When someone has emotional intelligence, they’re more aware of what is lingering underneath the surface of their emotions. Reflecting on the previous day enables you to focus on self-care, self-awareness, and self-acceptance, improving your outlook and decreasing negative thoughts.
4. It will help you live in the moment.
Simply put, focusing on the now also improves mental health and can stop anxiety, rumination, and cognitive distortions like fortune-telling or catastrophizing. Not only does focusing on the moment you’re in stop intruding thoughts, but it helps us to be more present in our lives and for our loved ones.
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