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The Benefits of Doing Nothing: How Taking Breaks Makes You More Productive and Happier

As a culture, we work too much. In fact, it’s sobering to realize just how much we work and just how little time we spend giving ourselves a break.  Last year, for example, Americans took the least amount of vacationtime in the world, according to Expedia. Americans also put in more work hours than their counterparts […]

As a culture, we work too much. In fact, it’s sobering to realize just how much we work and just how little time we spend giving ourselves a break. 

Last year, for example, Americans took the least amount of vacationtime in the world, according to Expedia. Americans also put in more work hours than their counterparts in Japan, the U.K., Germany and Canada, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Working long hours and skipping vacation is only part of the problem. Often, when we’re not at work we’re still “on” – emailing and texting colleagues during “off” hours. On weekends we hack away at to-do lists, drive our kids around to multiple sporting events and pursue hobbies with professional zeal. Our constant connectivity makes downtime furtive, too. Like a fan set on low, our minds continually whirl while binging on Netflix, checking Instagram or scanning the web.

Our Overworked Mentality Is Making Us Sick

All of it makes me want to take a nap. Which, as it turns out, is a good thing (more on that in a moment). The irony of all of our overwork is that it actually makes us less productive and less happy. Countless studies show how too much work hurts performance and creates mental and physical problems ranging from depression to cardiovascular issues. 

More surprising, though, is that there are myriad benefits to doing nothing – or engaging in activities and being in the present moment without any overarching agenda or immediate goal. 

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Not long ago, for example, I offered to join a 72-year-old friend of mine on walks around the block to support him in his recovery from hip replacement surgery.

The treks with his tennis-ball padded walker were slow. I had time to see every weed poking through the cracks in the sidewalk; notice houses I somehow hadn’t seen before and listen unhurriedly to stories about his upbringing. Both of us were letting time have its way with us – being rather than doing. 

I was struck by the pleasantness of our free-floating walks, which left me refreshed and ready to buckle down to work. And while we might think that doing nothing is unproductive, research shows quite the opposite it true. Idle time isn’t idle at all.  

What Happens to Our Brain When We Do Nothing

When we give ourselves time to “be” rather than “do” our brain consolidates learning and helps us retain information. Innovators, ranging from Albert Einstein to Mozart to mathematician Henri Poincare, spoke about how breakthroughs often came when they took time away from work. Mozart remarked that when he was alone riding in a carriage his ideas flowed “best and abundantly.” 

 “Whence and how these ideas come I know not nor can I force them,” he wrote.

In recent years, neuroscience has revealed that when the brain takes a break from a dedicated task it has the opportunity to link disparate ideas and concepts, boosting creativity and problem solving

If you’ve ever wondered why you get some of your best ideas in the shower or while gardening instead of at your desk now you know.

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It may seem obvious that taking breaks is good for our bodies, but you might not know how necessary rest is for performance. When Nasa studied how naps could help astronauts with irregular sleep patterns, they discovered that 40-minute naps boosted performance by 34% and increased alertness 100%.

Top athletes prioritize rest and sleep like most of us prioritize a morning cup of coffee. LeBron James, for example, is an All-Star napper who takes daytime snoozes lasting up to two hours. 

There are innumerable ways to incorporate more downtime into your daily life – including going on device-free strolls and, of course, napping. There’s also mindfulness. 

How Mindfulness Can Help You “Be” Instead of “Do”

At its heart, mindfulness – the practice of paying attention to the present moment with non-judgmental awareness – is about being rather than doing. When we practice mindfulness, we’re invited to rest in our experience and allow our minds and bodies to be. Through mindfulness we can learn to “do” a little less and “be” a little more, giving our brains and bodies the break they need while also encouraging the quality of being to emerge more often in our daily lives.  

Mindfulness also can help us notice the habits that perpetuate overdoing. We can, for example, notice our compulsion to busy our brains with our devices. And instead, we can stop, take a few purposeful breaths and see what else our imagination might choose for us. 

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Maybe we’ll decide to stretch out on the lawn and watch the clouds roll across the sky. Maybe we’ll sit at a sidewalk café, pretend we’re in Paris, and people watch. Maybe we’ll get down on the floor with our toddler and play with Legos. 

Who knows what sorts of insights might strike us when we allow our brains and bodies to slowly unfurl? We might find, in the end, that we get more done by spending less time chained to our desks or on our iPhones. 

Of course, work will always beckon. At times, hard work is necessary and satisfying. But we ought to take time to do nothing just as seriously as our day jobs.

Written by eM Life Teacher Kelly Barron.

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