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Friday, January 05, 2024

Your brain needs more rest than you’re giving it. These 9 tips will help. - The Washington Post

Your brain needs more rest than you’re giving it. These 9 tips can help.

"On Day 5 of our New Year’s Tuneup, we’ll show you how to focus on adding more restful moments into your day

An illustration of a woman reclining in blue pajamas, looking at her phone. In the background through the window the sun is setting, and there is another person playing with their dog outside.
(Illustration by Chelsea Conrad/The Washington Post)

When you think about getting rest, which of these situations comes to mind?

  • A. Enjoying a good night’s sleep
  • B. Taking a midday nap
  • C. Reclining on the sofa to watch mindless television

While these restful moments all have their place in daily life, it’s a common misconception to view rest as an entirely passive experience. True rest, say experts, is not just about being sedentary or in the prone position — it’s also about giving your brain the restorative breaks it needs to function at an optimal level. While adequate sleep is essential to brain health, many forms of rest involve activity, not slumber.

“The most restorative kinds of rest — the things that recharge our mental and physical batteries most effectively — are the things that are active rather than passive,” said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of the book “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.” “Going for a long walk or hike or working out can give us more rather than less energy and leave us feeling mentally more rejuvenated.”

This is your brain on rest

A series of cultural and generational shifts have fueled interest in the concept of rest. Work-from-home habits forged during the pandemic have prompted many workers to rethink how and where they work, reviving interest in a four-day workweek. And boundary-setting millennials and Gen Z workers have rebelled against the after-hours work habits of earlier generations.

The advocacy for more rest is backed by science. When researchers began mapping brain activity, they were surprised to learn that the resting brain is still an active brain. When we shift our attention from concentrating on a task to something that requires less active mental focus (such as daydreaming or introspection), our brain’s “default mode network,” or DMN, becomes more activated. While there’s still much to be learned about this network, the DMN is believed to be involved in a variety of cognitive functions, including creative thinking.

But many of us have lives structured around long workdays that require constant focus and attention. Some view downtime as wasted time or use it to catch up on more work-related tasks. Any chance of rest often doesn’t happen until the end of the workday.

“Even if you like your job, your brain is not at rest while you’re doing it,” said Celeste Headlee, author of “Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.” “Liking your job and feeling mission-driven may make that job more sustainable, but I still have to put that away if what I want to do is rest. You have to protect your rest and your leisure time like a grizzly mother protects her cubs.”

The good news is that rest is something you can practice and improve.

“There is a kind of skill dimension to rest. It’s something that we can learn to do better,” said Pang. He noted that we can develop daily practices that let us get more out of rest, allowing it “to be a bigger part of our lives rather than something that we leave to the end of the day.”

9 ways to build your rest habit

Focus on active rest: Active rest means disconnecting from a focused task, usually work, and taking a walk or going to the gym. Even if exercise tires you, it still counts as rest for your brain. “The long walk while listening to the podcast may deliver more of a recharge and reset than being on the sofa watching ‘The Great British Bake Off,’” Pang said.

Get a hobby: Turning your attention to a hobby — painting, scrapbooking, ceramics, birdwatching — is also a form of rest. “It can be really valuable to have serious hobbies that also occupy your time and attention,” Pang said.

Take more breaks during your day. During breaks, your mind resets, ideas incubate, and you come back more energized and creative. In one study, groups of students were asked to imagine as many uses as they could for a single piece of paper. One group focused on the task, while another group took a five-minute break during the exercise. The break group ended up with more creative ideas.

Make a “today” list. Robert Poynton, author of the book “Do Pause: You Are Not a To Do List,” said to-do lists often are packed with endless tasks, and just looking a them can be exhausting and demoralizing. He suggested making a “today” list with just the essential tasks you can reasonably complete today. When you finish, don’t add new tasks to the list. “Make a reasonable estimate as to what is achievable,” said Poynton. “Once you’ve done the today list, then you can just create time for yourself.”

Rethink long workdays. Research suggests that we get less productive and creative when we work long hours. Research from Iceland found that workers who clocked 35 to 36 hours a week were equally or more productive and had improved well-being compared with working more than 40 hours per week.

Practice “micro” pauses: Microbreaks have been shown to boost vigor and reduce fatigue. Take three deep breaths before you start a Zoom meeting. Do a breathing exercise at stoplights. Take a coffee break and savor the coffee. “It constantly surprises me how little it takes to make a big difference,” said Poynton. “Taking 90 seconds to go outside and breathe the air and look at the mountains puts me in a very different frame of mind for the next Zoom call.”

Take tech breaks. Shut down laptops and phones to give yourself a tech break. “You have to understand the way your brain works,” Headlee said. “Keeping your email box open in the background on your computer is an interruption to your brain. The brain will spend a surprising amount of energy thinking and preparing for the arrival of the next email.”

Track where your time goes. Headlee noted that many people don’t really know where their time goes. She advises clients to take notes every half-hour jotting down what they’ve been doing. After a week or two, clear patterns will emerge. “It’s one of the most powerful exercises because when people realize where their time is really going, it can completely change their priorities,” she said. Once you identify how many potentially free hours a day you could have, make a plan for how you want to use this uncommitted time.

Take regular vacations: Longer vacations aren’t better. Some research suggests the benefits of taking time off peak around the eighth day of vacation. In fact, much of the mental health benefit of vacation comes from the days leading up to it. Pang suggests taking about a week off every quarter, if you can. And don’t let your vacation days accumulate or worse, disappear. One study of 12,338 middle-aged men at high risk for heart disease found that not taking annual vacations was linked to a higher risk of dying during a nine-year follow-up period compared with those who vacationed often."

Your brain needs more rest than you’re giving it. These 9 tips will help. - The Washington Post

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