Is there a certain time of day when you just sort of shut down? Mentally, you move a bit slower, your mind doesn’t seem to want to work, you can’t quite focus. For most people, this happens in the middle of the afternoon around 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. Why? An article in Scientific American puts it simply: our brains are full and we need downtime.
Essentially, we need downtime—both in terms of sleep and wakeful rest—to help our brains function at a high level. Unfortunately, what Americans are probably the worst at, out of all developed nations, is downtime. We take fewer vacations, sleep fewer hours, and nap less than most of the world.
But really, to be as productive as possible, we need more of those activities. Why? Because rest, downtime from work, helps us at the neuron level: A study by Flinders University in Australia of napping and alertness found that we have two clusters of neurons, one that keeps us awake, and the other that induces sleepiness. As one cluster fires, it inhibits the other cluster, so you switch from wake to sleep and back.
According to the article, “Neurons in the wake circuit likely become fatigued and slow down after many hours of firing during the day, which allows the neurons in the sleep circuit to speed up and initiate the flip to a sleep state. Once someone begins to doze, however, a mere seven to 10 minutes of sleep may be enough to restore the wake-circuit neurons to their former excitability.”
It turns out that downtime, whether wakeful resting or a short 10-minute nap, can actually help us be more wakeful and productive because it gives our waking neurons a chance to re-energize.
Here are some of the studies the article draws from to prove that downtime actually makes us more productive:
Relaxation improves memory: A University of Michigan study found that students who were able to stroll through an arboretum after memorizing a list of random numbers were far more likely to remember those numbers afterward, unlike the other group which had to walk through busy city streets.
Meditation helps us focus: In a Johann Wolfgang Goethe University study, people with years of meditative practice were able to focus on and recall numbers flashed on a computer screen far more often than people without experience in meditation.
Frequent rest helps people reach the top of their fields: The Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson “has concluded that most people can engage in deliberate practice—which means pushing oneself beyond current limits—for only an hour without rest; that extremely talented people in many different disciplines—music, sports, writing—rarely practice more than four hours each day on average; and that many experts prefer to begin training early in the morning when mental and physical energy is readily available.”
Sleep, says Ericsson, is the key to restoring equilibrium Without frequent rest and breaks, people will eventually be incapacitated by burnout.
This is why flexible working is so important! Flexible schedules, working from home—these things help us gain control over our time and rest our brains, which in the long run will make us more productive professionals. It may seem counterintuitive, but the next time you feel like you’re running out of steam, but you’re way too busy to stop, take a 10 minute nap. Consider it an investment in your productivity.
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