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The Real Importance of Taking Breaks for Your Mind—Sorry, Netflix Doesn’t Count.

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Why Your Brain Requires Time Off

Rest and relaxation are essential for optimal brain function. Your brain works tirelessly every day, processing vast amounts of information and engaging in constant communication. However, if your brain is not given the opportunity to unwind and recharge, it can have detrimental effects on your mood, performance, and overall well-being. Taking mental downtime allows your brain to rejuvenate itself and enhance its ability to cope.

Unfortunately, Americans are experiencing less mental downtime than ever before (and the same applies to sleep). According to Matthew Edlund, M.D., the author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough, many people treat themselves like machines. They consistently overbook their schedules, overwork themselves, and take on too much.

This is particularly true for individuals who lead active lives. Driven by motivation and determination, they apply the same intensity to every aspect of their lives, including their workouts. They believe that maximizing productivity is the key to success.

However, this approach can backfire. Consider the exhausted state you find yourself in after a marathon work meeting, a hectic day running errands and completing chores, or a weekend filled with social obligations. Your ability to think clearly diminishes, your productivity decreases, and you become forgetful, leading to mistakes.

A high-octane lifestyle erodes productivity, creativity, and happiness, as noted by Stew Friedman, Ph.D., the director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project and the author of Leading the Life You Want. Rest is vital for the mind. Research indicates that taking a mental break enhances creative thinking, problem-solving abilities, idea generation, and overall contentment.

The Importance of Giving Your Brain a Pause

Your brain is inherently wired to require regular periods of rest. It operates in two primary modes. The first mode is action-oriented, enabling you to focus on tasks, solve problems, and process incoming information. This mode is active when you are working, watching TV, scrolling through social media, or engaging in any activity that involves managing and comprehending information.

The second mode, known as the default mode network (DMN), activates when your mind takes a break, recalls past memories, or contemplates future events. This mode was discovered in a study published in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, as referenced by the National Library of Medicine.

If you have ever perused a couple of pages of a novel and subsequently recognized that you have not assimilated anything because your mind was occupied with something entirely different, like where the ideal location would be to visit for tacos or what outfit to put on tomorrow, that was your DMN assuming control.

Research demonstrates that the default mode network (DMN) has the ability to switch on and off rapidly, but you can also remain in it for extended periods, like during a serene stroll in nature. Regardless, it is crucial to dedicate daily time to your DMN: “It fosters revitalization in the brain when you can contemplate or consolidate information and derive meaning from your life experiences,” explains Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. She further emphasizes, “It aids in self-awareness, determining the next steps, and assigning significance to things, and it is associated with well-being, intelligence, and creativity.”

The DMN allows your mind to introspect and organize thoughts by assisting in expanding and consolidating acquired knowledge, contemplating the future, and problem-solving. If you ever reach a point of struggle and abandon a task, only to experience a sudden moment of insight later on, you may have your DMN to thank, according to Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D., a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In a study involving writers and physicists, Schooler and his team discovered that 30 percent of the participants’ creative ideas originated while they were engaged in unrelated activities or thoughts.

Moreover, the DMN also plays a vital role in memory formation. In fact, studies suggest that your brain may be more active in forming memories during the quiet moments before falling asleep (a prime period for DMN activity) than while you are actually asleep.

How to Reinvigorate Your Mind with Mental Breaks

According to experts, it is essential to give your brain regular breaks throughout the day. Although there are no strict guidelines, it is recommended to have a rest period approximately every 90 minutes or whenever you start experiencing mental exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, or being stuck on a problem, as suggested by Friedman.

No matter how busy you become, do not neglect activities that truly rejuvenate you, such as a peaceful morning bike ride, taking a break away from your desk during lunchtime, or enjoying a relaxing evening at home. And remember not to skip vacations or days off. “The key lies in recognizing that downtime is not a luxury that detracts from productivity,” affirms Immordino-Yang. In fact, it is quite the opposite. “When you invest in downtime to consolidate information and derive meaning from your life experiences, you return to your daily routine feeling refreshed and more strategic in achieving your goals,” she explains.

Here are some other proven ways to obtain the cognitive renewal you require each day:

Take action.

Cleansing dishes, horticulture, going for a stroll, painting a chamber — these kinds of tasks offer fertile ground for your DMN, affirms Schooler. “Individuals struggle to engage in daydreaming when they’re engaging in absolutely nothing. They have a tendency to feel guilty or uninterested. Undemanding activities provide a more extensive cognitive renewal because you’re not as fidgety,” he elucidates. So, next time you’re folding laundry, allow your mind to wander.

Disregard your phone.

You most likely grab your phone whenever you’re uninterested (same), but that custom is depriving you of valuable cognitive downtime. Take a break from the screen. When you’re accomplishing errands, store your phone away so that you have it if it’s absolutely necessary, then pay no attention to it for as long as possible. Observe how it feels to not be disrupted and how you can engage in daydreaming when you’re engaging in tasks such as waiting in line. Initially, people tend to feel apprehensive, says Friedman, who encourages his students to attempt this as an experiment. “However, after a short while, they commence taking deeper, more tranquil breaths and commence observing the surroundings. Many individuals realize how reliant they are on their phones as a crutch when they’re anxious or bored,” he adds. Moreover, allowing your mind to drift at times like this might actually aid you in maintaining greater concentration and being fully present when necessary, such as during a seemingly never-ending but significant meeting at work, suggests Schooler.

Reduce your level of connectivity.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat are akin to chocolate: a moderate amount is beneficial for you, but excessive consumption can lead to trouble. “Social media is the foremost disruptor of downtime, without a doubt,” states Shelov. “Furthermore, it can work against you as you only see the ideal aspects of people’s lives. This induces anxiety,” she further adds. Even more anxiety-inducing are all the distressing news stories that inundate your Facebook feed. Monitor your social media usage for a couple of days to gauge exactly how much time you spend on it and how it affects your emotions. If necessary, establish limits for yourself — no more than 45 minutes per day, for instance — or trim down your friends list, retaining only those individuals whom you genuinely relish keeping up with and who bring you joy.

Opt for nature over urban surroundings.

Allowing your mind to wander while strolling through a park is more rejuvenating compared to walking down a street, as affirmed by research conducted by the University of Michigan. Why is this so? Urban and suburban environments inundate you with distractions — blaring horns, vehicles, and people. However, a green area possesses calming sounds, such as melodious bird chirping and the gentle rustling of trees in the breeze, which you can elect to pay attention to or disregard, granting your brain greater freedom to explore wherever it desires.


The awareness you obtain through meditation can assist you in managing stress and unease, but that doesn’t imply you need to designate a half-hour to perch in a nook and recite. “There are numerous relaxation and repose methods that you can do in under a minute,” states Dr. Edlund. For instance, concentrate on the minuscule muscles in distinct areas of your body for 10 to 15 seconds each, he states. Or every time you take a sip of water, contemplate how it tastes and feels. Accomplishing this is tantamount to providing your mind a mini break, says Friedman.

Pursue your joy.

DMN isn’t the only type of psychological intermission you gain from — engaging in activities you adore, even if they necessitate some concentration (think: perusing, playing tennis or piano, attending a concert with friends) can also be invigorating, says Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., the head of the Media Psychology Research Center in California. “Contemplate which endeavors satisfy and invigorate you. Allocate time for that delight and to undergo the positive emotions that arise from them,” she suggests.

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