Why Downtime Is Essential for Brain Health

Give your brain the break it needs
Woman vacuuming

Being busy can feel like a badge of honor. “So many of us define ourselves by what we do. So we overdo, overwork and overproduce,” says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. “In our culture, ‘downtime’ can sound like a dirty word.”

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But there are plenty of good reasons to give your brain a break, he says. Not convinced you have time to take five? Keep reading.

Downtime for the overworked brain

Have you ever gotten stuck doing a crossword puzzle, set it aside and came back to solve it easily after a break? That’s no accident. “Our brains are like sponges,” says Dr. Bea. “They can only soak up so much information before they’re saturated, then they have to dry out a bit.”

Your brain needs a rest now and then. Research has found that taking breaks can improve your mood, boost your performance and increase your ability to concentrate and pay attention.

When you don’t give your mind a chance to pause and refresh, it doesn’t work as efficiently. You might also be more likely to experience burnout and the health problems that go hand-in-hand with chronic stress.  

“When you take breaks, you can solve problems in fresher ways than you could if you just kept your nose to the grindstone,” he says. “Our brains are like any machine: They need a rest.”

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Let the default mode network out to play

Taking a break doesn’t mean your brain has totally checked out. “What we call downtime isn’t complete downtime,” Dr. Bea says.

That’s because some regions of the brain get more active when you aren’t focused on processing information. The best known of those brain areas is the default mode network (DMN).

The DMN seems to play an important role when you’re focusing attention inward, rather than focusing on the external world. The DMN has been linked to things like ethics, memories, creativity and how we define our sense of self.

“There’s some science to suggest that what our brains do when they’re not actively processing information is pretty important,” he says. “When we let our minds wander, it can be replenishing.”

What counts as downtime?

Don’t confuse “downtime” with “leisure activity.” Going to a museum, doing a puzzle, reading a book, catching up with a friend — those are wonderful ways to spend your free time. But they’re not true downtime, in the mind-wandering sense.

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And watching TV, scrolling through social media or playing games on your phone also don’t count as downtime. (What???) “These activities all require processing information — and part of the reason we need more downtime is that we’re doing way too much processing already,” Dr. Bea explains.

To let your mind wander and activate the DMN, you need to do less. A lot less. Like “sit and stare into space” less. If you have trouble sitting and staring, try a mindless task, like vacuuming or weeding, Dr. Bea says. He’s a big fan of nature walks. But whatever you do, pick something that doesn’t require your brain to do much work. Then, let it meander.

How to take a break when you’re too busy to think

If you’re used to being overscheduled, though, it can be hard to figure out how to let your brain just … be. These steps will help make you a daydream believer.

  1. Schedule it. If your agenda is chock-full, it’s hard to let your brain relax and recharge. Try to squeeze in a few minutes each day for downtime. How much you can handle depends on your schedule and temperament, Dr. Bea says. Start with a few minutes a day and add more as you get into the habit.
  2. Plan when to worry. If you spend your mind-wandering moments stressing over problems, it’s not exactly restorative. “Filling our downtime with worry is not to our advantage,” Dr. Bea says. Set aside a set time each day to worry. If you find yourself worrying during other times — like mind-wandering moments — remind yourself to postpone the stress until its regularly scheduled appointment. “Like all things, that gets easier with practice,” he adds.
  3. Set the stage. If you find it hard to be idle with your thoughts, try guiding them. A mindfulness app can help you tune in to your surroundings. Or wander through some pleasant childhood memories and see where they lead you, Dr. Bea suggests. “You can create a plan for these healthy brain experiences.”
  4. Have good sense. Having trouble daydreaming without dwelling on your troubles? “Pay attention to your senses rather than your thoughts,” Dr. Bea suggests. “Listen to the birds, or focus on the scent of a candle.”  
  5. Practice, practice. Some people don’t need a nudge to get lost in a daydream. But for many others, embracing downtime takes getting used to. That’s OK, Dr. Bea says. “Over time, we get better and better, and we start to recover something important and restorative for our brains,” he says.

So go ahead and give yourself a break. Your mind will thank you later — when it’s done wandering.

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