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Give your mind a break from work, thinking and your phone

Downtime is a necessary part of life. Science shows that it helps us be healthier, more focused, more productive and more creative. Yet somehow we often lose sight of that.

“Time off is important for our health and our bodies, but also for our minds,” says Elissa Epel, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Epel and others acknowledge that many of us feel like we’re wasting time when we don’t get anything done. But research points to the cost of being constantly “on” and the importance of giving our brains a break. Our brains aren’t designed to handle constant activity.

Even the briefest moments of free time or breaks are important, says Robert Poynton, author of “Do Pause: You Are Not a To-Do list.”

Short breaks – whether it’s taking a few deep breaths before entering a room or taking a 10-minute walk through the woods – can provide the self-reflection you need.

“I think we feel like we have to do things,” says Poynton, an associate fellow at the University of Oxford in England. “But if we’re always doing things, we don’t take the time to decide or consider whether what we’re doing is the most interesting, important, fruitful, beautiful, pleasant or healthy thing.”

Downtime is not the same as boredom, which is a sign that you are not engaged with what you are doing. As the Washington Post reported in a Brain Matters column last year about what boredom might be telling you.

Established research has shown that small daily stresses can place such a strain on our body’s physiological systems that we observe accelerated aging of our cells, says Epel, who co-authored the book “The Telomere Effect.”.“Epel added, “Mindfulness-based interventions can slow biological aging by interrupting chronic stress and giving us the freedom to deal with difficult situations without causing wear and tear – and giving our bodies a break.”

Studies show that rest periods – even short ones – have a positive effect on brain health.

A small study published in the journal Cognition found that people who took short breaks were better able to concentrate on a task than those who didn’t take a break. Sustained stimulation, the study authors said, can cause our brains to become accustomed to an activity, eventually leading us to view it as unimportant.

A meta-analysis published in the journal PLOS One in 2022 investigated how “micro-breaks” can affect well-being. The study found that even 10-minute breaks can increase vitality and reduce fatigue.

Rest periods can be especially beneficial during long work days. In 2021, when many Americans were constantly working from home, Microsoft conducted a study that observed two groups of people: the first had back-to-back Zoom meetings, and the other group took 10-minute meditation breaks between meetings. Microsoft monitored the brain activity of 14 study participants using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

In the first group, “you see a brain that’s pumped up with cortisol and adrenaline,” says Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of “Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.” “It’s tired, it’s stressed, it’s probably more irritable and probably less compassionate.” And the other group? “You can see in bright colors what a difference (the breaks) make,” she says. “These are relaxed brains.”

There is a big difference between downtime and boredom: The former is a necessary activity that gives us new energy, while the latter is an unpleasant state in which we want to do something else, says Andreas Elpidorou, a philosophy professor at the University of Louisville who studies boredom.

“We feel boredom when our task or situation does not challenge us sufficiently cognitively – it does not interest us sufficiently, does not stimulate us, does not hold our attention or does not offer us enough meaning,” he says.

When we are bored, we often reach for our mobile phones because it allows us to easily avoid this unpleasant feeling.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with it (we all do it), it’s not a good solution to boredom because it’s a passive activity, says James Danckert, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. and co-author of “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.” Danckert added, “What boredom really wants is for you to consciously engage in something meaningful.”

New research shows the negative impact our mobile phones have on our health. Smartphone addiction (which Danckert says affects 4 to 8 percent of people) is on the rise around the world. It’s been linked to physical health problems like digital eye strain and disc degeneration in the neck, as well as anxiety and depression. Some recent research also suggests that it can affect the structure of our brains: two studies have found that smartphone addiction is correlated with lower white matter integrity and lower gray matter volume in the brain.

But our inability to take a break is by no means a new problem.

In the popular 1994 mindfulness book Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote that we spend all of our waking hours busying ourselves, doing, and distracting ourselves. “Life today offers us little time to be unless we consciously seize the opportunity,” he wrote.

In Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 classic “Walden” – based on the more than two years he spent living in a cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts – he wrote: “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is, ‘What are we busy with?'”

Most Americans think of downtime as something extra or indulgent—a reward that must be earned after completing all productive tasks, says Amber Childs, a psychologist and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. But research suggests the opposite: Downtime is a basic human need.

“There is no place where it explicitly says that this is a normative, expected and valued part of what it means to be alive, what it means to be healthy, what it means to be whole and what it means to be successful,” she says.

Build time out into your life

Give your body and mind a reboot with these three tips.

Don’t focus on anything. Downtime should leave you rested, rejuvenated and re-energized, says Childs. That can be as simple as relaxing in front of a fire or sitting outside and letting your mind wander.

Work your way upSitting still for 30 minutes a day is great, but it’s not achievable for everyone. Start small: The next time you’re waiting for a takeout order or a ride home, do nothing. Instead, just exist.

If in doubt, lie down. Epel’s research has looked at the benefits of deep rest, a restful state that can improve our physical and psychological well-being. You can achieve deep rest through yoga and mindfulness meditation, but Epel said the ultimate method is to simply lie down on the floor.

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