You're living life, and fitting a lot into your days: You work out with a trainer three times a week, and follow it up with foam-rolling recovery; each week you’re fielding hundreds of work emails, updating your Twitter and cooking healthier meals faster. But still, the question posed by the world — by productivity blogs and Four Hour books and lists of "10 Ways You Can Get Better At Everything" — is . . . couldn't you be doing more?
"We're so achievement-oriented. And there's a big payoff for that in terms of dopamine," says Margaret Moore, author of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. All our striving and achieving is addictive. "Your brain is designed to always be on the lookout for stimuli — it wants to see the next email or text message."
But here’s the thing: We’re not very good at regulating ourselves. Left to our own devices (and our mobile devices), we’ll chase stimulus after stimulus without rest. But that rest is crucial to our physical, emotional, and mental health — as science has proven in innumerable studies, regeneration is as important as all the stuff you need regenerating from in the first place. Despite all the cramming in of new experiences and "life hacks" to tweak efficiency, the most important thing you can do for yourself could be . . . nothing.
In other words, downtime is essential for your health. When you work out at a challenging level that your body isn’t used to, you actually create tears in your muscles, breaking down your muscle fibers. You also stress your heart and bones. It’s during rest and sleep that your body repairs them — that’s how they grow, and how you become stronger.
And more rest can improve athletic performance: In one study, getting “extended” sleep — 10 hours per night — helped Stanford University varsity basketball players make more three-pointers.
Relaxation helps your body on the cellular level. In a study published this year, researchers in Boston found that relaxing for just 15 minutes — listening to a calming CD — improved the resiliency of mitochondria, the power centers of the cells. When mitochondria are more resilient, they’re more efficient at using the fuel produced by your muscles — meaning you’ll last longer before hitting your lactate threshold and punking out during a sprint or final set of reps. Researchers found that resilient mitochondria can also reduce stress downstream — meaning that relaxing now can protect your body from stress later, and give your immune system a boost.
“The human body was designed to be stressed and to recover,” says Moore. “Look at the heartbeat. It speeds up and then slows down.” That slow down is essential not just for our physical health but for our mental well-being as well. Our lifestyles used to include these kinds of recovery breaks for our mind naturally. “You went to the restaurant and everyone wasn’t looking at their phones. There were waiting spaces. Breathing spaces with nothing to do.”
What we didn’t have to strive for in the past — phone-free meals, email-less days — are bits of downtime that we’ve now lost, Moore says. Losing those device-free opportunities not only affects our ability to recharge, it also affects our creativity.
“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,” says Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. “We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged.”
You may be reluctant to take such a break. Don’t be: At Google, products including Gmail, advertising model AdSense, and the search engine’s autocomplete function, were created during “20 percent time,” company-mandated downtime from regular work each week.
Mandating your own downtime may not result in a global-sensation email program, but it could unleash your creativity and give you more energy when you resume tasks. Moore’s suggestions? Make time for ambition-free moments. For just half a morning or half an hour, give your mind a rest.
“Wake up on a Saturday without any plans, and just move from one thing to the next,” she says. If you feel like doing something, do it. Then drift to something else — not from a sense of duty, but simply on a whim. This may actually be difficult, because for once, “you’re not trying to accomplish anything, you’re not trying to achieve anything,” Moore says. “You’re following your impulses."
Perhaps you’ll read a book. If so, you could reduce your overall stress levels by 68 percent. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that just six minutes of reading lowered heart rates and eased tension in the muscles.
Listening to music for the same amount of time creates a 61 percent reduction in stress, according to the study.
Learn to “appreciate the value of recharge times . . .. Have an ambition to have no ambition,” Moore says. “Just get up, walk around, and do nothing. That’s the best thing you can do.”
Photo credit: Dima Hohlov/Gallery Stock