Numerous studies find that a short siesta sharpens the mind.
Napping, meditating, anything that gives your mind a bit of respite from the ever-quickening rat race of modern day life are essential to allow your brain to recover. And here’s the kicker (which we all pretty much already know but haven’t quite put into practice): Downtime increases productivity.
You’re probably thinking, who has time for that elusive “downtime” in this horrible economy? You’re not alone. Even though Americans have no guaranteed time off (compared with the European Union, which mandates an average of 20 paid leave days a year), they usually take at least 10 days off a year, for holidays and what not. But a new survey by Harris Interactive shows that in 2012, the average American had nine unused vacation days. Not only is this unhealthy (psychologists show there are great benefits to taking off a day or two here and there, as opposed to even full week vacations to allow the brain to recover, ponder and store memories) but it’s also immensely counterintuitive and just plain unproductive.
...Americans and their brains are preoccupied with work much of the time. Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy. What if the brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and generate its most innovative ideas? “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
In making an argument for the necessity of mental downtime, we can now add an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence to intuition and anecdote. Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind. What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.