Woman relaxing on a couch with a cup of tea. Taking downtime to protect her creative process and be her most productive self afterwards.

Productivity and The Importance of Taking Downtime

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What Constitutes Downtime and Why are Brain Breaks Important?

Do you want to boost your creativity and productivity? According to science, the key to unlocking both is to stop trying so hard. It turns out, downtime is incredibly important to increasing creativity and solving problems.

According to the research of cognitive scientist, Scott Barry Kaufman (who also co-authored Wired to Create), 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower – which is more than they report getting at work. The reason why isn’t tied to anything special about the shower itself. The key is that when you’re in the shower, your mind tends to wander. As it does so, it is more prone to make creative connections – including those needed to come up with new ideas or solutions.

In essence, downtime or ‘strategic slacking’ can be one of the most important tools for the busy professional.

Here are a few ways to integrate downtime into your daily schedule – at work, at home and everywhere in between.

Understanding What a Brain Break Is

Downtime or a ‘brain break’ is defined by a very specific state of mind called a “diffused” brain state, which is achieved when we let our minds wander. Essentially, it’s the opposite of a “focused” brain state. Both states of mind are important, but the diffused state is not talked about as often when it comes to increasing problem solving and creativity – even though it plays a crucial role.

Disengaging your thoughts from all major tasks, whether they’re related to your work or home life, will help you tap into this critical state. The trick is to not engage in anything emotionally, mentally, or physically taxing. And to clear your mind of everything that could be considered as such.

Research shows that the average American attention span is only 8 seconds, and that we tend to work best when we take a break at least every 90 minutes or so.

How to Get Downtime and Include Brain Breaks in Your Day

Although downtime is notoriously thought of as being difficult to come by, there may be more opportunities to include downtime into your regular day than you realize.

And by the way – downtime doesn’t just mean taking a nap, going for a walk, or meditating (although each one of those is a lovely way to spend some peaceful moments!).

Here are some key times in your day that you can rest your mind, ranging from just a few moments, to a half hour or more.

4 Ideas for When to Tap Into Downtime

  1. On your daily commute.
  2. In those spare minutes before a meeting.
  3. Your lunch hour.
  4. During a shower or anytime you’re taking personal time to get ready to go out.

Note: You may notice that the above list consists of time periods in which you are used to working through. Like working through your lunch, or opening up your work emails while you’re on the subway. In most cases, you’d actually be more productive, if you left these tasks to the time when you’re at the office and let your mind wander instead.

How to Maximize Your Downtime

Downtime On Your Commute

No matter if it’s listening to podcasts, audiobooks, music, or spending a few device-free, quiet moments, using your commute for downtime allows you to recharge your mental batteries so you can more effectively get into the grind when you arrive to your destination.

Try adhering to a rule of ‘no work’ in the car, bus, subway, on the walk, or however you get from point A to B. If what you’re doing or thinking about is even remotely stressful, don’t do it on your commute. Pay attention to how you feel – including how productive and creative you are – when you reserve this time to indulge your mind in enjoying entertaining content or the simple beauty of some quiet moments.

The average daily commute time in the U.S. is 50 minutes round trip. If you invested your 50-minute commute each work day in audiobooks and podcasts, that equates to four hours a week and adds up to 216 hours annually. 

– John Brubaker, Performance Consultant, Speaker, & Award-Winning Author

216 hours of downtime!

  • If you’re into podcasts, imagine all the entertaining facts you could learn in 216 hours!
  • If you’re into audiobooks, imagine all the powerful and imaginative stories you could hear!
  • If you’re into listening to music, imagine all the mind wandering you could do to your favorite tunes in all of that commute time.

Downtime During Your Work Day

Chances are, there are moments during your workday that you are choosing to fill with more work, when you could be enjoying some downtime instead.

If you find yourself waiting outside a meeting room while another group finishes up – or if you’re waiting for your group to arrive, you’ve come across an opportunity for downtime. In these times, don’t be tempted to check emails. You’ve already prepped your meeting notes, you already know the meeting agenda, and honestly, you know those email responses can wait, too.

Instead, try bringing a wordsearch puzzle with you, and work through it while you wait. Make sure it’s not a wordsearch puzzle app, either. Research has linked excessive screen time with insomnia and even depression, so why not take a break? A pocketbook-sized word search book and pen will give you a break from screens, while letting your brain drift off as you search for cached words.

This works because it frees up the prefrontal cortex of your brain – the part of your brain responsible for both concentrating on tasks and combining them with existing information. Taking downtime allows that part of your brain to get around to the second part of that equation (the ‘sifting through existing information’ part). This existing information in your brain extends well beyond anything relevant to the task at hand. Which is exactly how you’re able to come up with all those wacky ideas that might just shake up how you’ve been approaching that perplexing project.  

Getting Downtime Over Lunch

Some might say that you can maximize your daily productivity by working through your lunch. It can be tempting to book lunch meetings or conference calls with clients or tackle that never-empty inbox.  

Yet, if you seized some downtime, you may actually find that you’re even more productive throughout the rest of the day.

Skip the lunch meetings and instead opt for a change in your scenery. That could mean going for a walk, a drive, lunch in the park or getting away from your computer and phone screen in any other way that appeals to you.

Set a lunch date with a friend, whether in-person or a phone date! Talk about nothing important. In fact, the more ridiculous the conversation, the better!

“Asking your family and friends far-out questions can boost your creativity,” says M.D. Matthew Edlund

It bears mentioning though, that if you can opt for a walk, the mental benefits of getting some strides in are well-documented. A Stanford University study found that walking boosted creativity both during and after the stroll.

Downtime During Your Showers

Showers can be the perfect time to turn your brain off and let your mind wander. Some of the most bizarre and fantastical thoughts come to us in the shower. And even better, they accidentally end up feeding into the real-life brain-teasers that have us stumped and in need of downtime to begin with!

John Brubaker recommends keeping a dry-erase marker on hand in the shower to write down those zany thoughts that come to you mid-shampoo.

Not only will seeing these thoughts written out help you to remember where your mind wandered to during this moment of diffused brain activity, but it’ll also provide entertainment for your spouse, kids, or flatmates to encounter. It’s an easy cleanup, so no harm will come to your shower or cohabitation relationships.

8 Activities to Give Your Brain a Break

Looking for other ways to help your brain enter a state of rest or refresh? Here are a few suggestions, ranging from entertaining to the mundane (Note: Engaging in mundane tasks, also known as single-tasking, are great and we explain why below!).

  1. Do a word search or crossword puzzle
  2. Read a book
  3. Take a relaxing bath
  4. Organize a single drawer in your kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom
  5. Sort out/tidy up your desk
  6. Backup your photos
  7. Send a thank you note
  8. Pull weeds or do yard work

Why Does Single-Tasking Work So Well as a Brain Break?

Tackling a single task, like organizing a desk drawer, can be effective in giving your brain a break because you can easily entertain other fleeting thoughts while you work. However, these activities still take up enough mental capacity that you won’t be able to think about the other project that’s got you stumped or stressed out.

Take your brain breaks when you recognize you’re simply no longer making any headway on that head-scratcher of a project.

Why Thinking Your Way Through Roadblocks Won’t Work

Remaining focused for too long isn’t any more productive than not working on the project at all! So, if you’re working on a stressful project, taking breaks might just alleviate that creative block you’re experiencing.

It’s strange to think that downtime will, in fact, make you more productive and creative once you get back to work. Author and New York Times guest writer Johan Lehrer was right when he said:

While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs.

Take your downtime both on a planned and adhoc basis. And do your best to make it a routine!

Creating a routine of downtime is a great way to protect the sacred activity of ‘doing not-so-much.’ The physical, mental, and emotional benefits of downtime are hard to top. Countless professionals swear that the creative breakthrough they needed came to them during times of doing nothing important.  

Here are 3 ways that the pros overcome roadblocks and stumble upon their creative breakthroughs:

  1. Change Where You’re Working From – it’s important to change your scenery often in order to stay sharp and creative. If your space allows, you can vary your environment by switching from common areas to quiet rooms. Or, if you’re able to take your work to the nearest java stop, there have been numerous studies that have found that coffee shops boost creativity.
  2. Get Moving – Go for walks outside or even do a quick 10 min workout at your desk or in your home workspace to get the blood flowing through your body again. In fact, going for a walk is one of the best ways to boost your productivity.
  3. Meditate – Taking a break to reflect on things other than work, can be a great way to reset. You may find it helpful to write in your journal or quietly sit still for a few minutes to clear your head. And don’t worry – you don’t need complete silence or a long stretch of time to make this happen. In fact, there are several amazing meditation and productivity apps that can help you work mediation into even the smallest increments of time.

Another Example of a Creative Breakthrough All Thanks to Brain Breaks

Taking downtime and thinking of nothing important can help you stumble upon ways to turn your usual creative process upside down. It can help you shake things up so you can find new perspective amongst the normal day-to-day tasks.

An example of this was brought to us by Jonathan De Souza, PhD in Music Theory and History. He explained that when Jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel felt his artistry was becoming stale, predictable, and no longer challenging, he randomly tuned his guitar to an unorthodox tuning. It challenged him to experience the sounds of the instrument in a new way for the first time since his ability to perform became habitual in nature.

Kurt Rosenwinkel’s breakthrough – coming up with the idea to spin the machine heads to no particular placement to experience something entirely different – is a perfect example of what can come to creatives during times of rest.

Downtime is responsible for these quirky ideas that can help to shake up the routine and habits we’re so accustomed to.

Be Your Most Creative and Productive Self by Not Working

The next time you’re in the thick of a tangled web of giant projects requiring your most creative ideas, step away and stop thinking about it all.

You might find that taking downtime doesn’t necessarily lead you to your answer, but it can lead you to discover new ways to approach a problem – like tuning a guitar to nowhere in particular just to see what happens.

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