PUT YOUR HEAD IN THE CLOUDS

You know to give your body a break af­ter a tough work­out – re­search shows your brain needs rest and re­cov­ery, too. Here’s the se­cret to pro­duc­tive men­tal down­time, and why it will make you hap­pier and health­ier.

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Time off is what your brain thrives on. It spends hours ev­ery day work­ing and man­ag­ing the con­stant streams of in­for­ma­tion and conversation that come at you from all direc­tions.

But if your brain doesn’t get a chance to chill and re­store it­self, your mood, per­for­mance and health suf­fer. Think of this re­cov­ery as men­tal down­time – pe­ri­ods when you’re not ac­tively fo­cus­ing on and en­gaged in the out­side world. You sim­ply let your mind wan­der or day­dream, and it be­comes re-en­er­gised in the process.

But just as we’re fall­ing short on sleep, we’re also get­ting less men­tal down­time than ever. In a sur­vey by the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics in the US, 83 per cent of re­spon­dents said they spent no time dur­ing the day re­lax­ing or think­ing.

“Peo­ple treat them­selves like ma­chines,” says Dr Matthew Ed­lund, the au­thor of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone is Not Enough. “They con­sis­tently over-sched­ule, over­work and overdo.”

This is es­pe­cially true for ac­tive women, who tend to go just as hard in the rest of their lives as they do in their work­outs be­cause they’re mo­ti­vated and driven, says Danielle Sh­elov, a psy­chol­o­gist in New York City. “They think the best way to suc­ceed is by do­ing as many pro­duc­tive things as pos­si­ble.”

That kind of at­ti­tude can re­bound on you, though. Con­sider the zom­bie-like feel­ing you have af­ter a marathon meet­ing at work, a crazy-busy day run­ning er­rands and do­ing chores, or a week­end filled with too many so­cial gath­er­ings and obli­ga­tions. You can barely think straight, you end up accomplishing less than you had planned, and you be­come for­get­ful and make mis­takes.

A full-throt­tle life­style can chisel away at pro­duc­tiv­ity, cre­ativ­ity and hap­pi­ness, says Stew Fried­man, the di­rec­tor of the Whar­ton Work/Life In­te­gra­tion Project at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and the au­thor of Lead­ing the

Life You Want. “The mind needs rest,” he says. “Re­search shows that af­ter you take a men­tal time-out, you are bet­ter at cre­ative think­ing and com­ing up with so­lu­tions and new ideas, and you feel more con­tent.”

MEN­TAL MUS­CLE

Your brain is ac­tu­ally de­signed to have reg­u­lar rest pe­ri­ods. Over­all, it has two main modes of pro­cess­ing. One is ac­tion-ori­ented and lets you con­cen­trate on tasks, solve prob­lems and process in­com­ing data – this is what you use when you’re work­ing, watch­ing TV, scrolling through In­sta­gram, or oth­er­wise man­ag­ing and mak­ing sense of in­for­ma­tion. The sec­ond is called the de­fault mode net­work (DMN), and it switches on when­ever your mind takes a break to wan­der in­wards.

If you’ve ever read a few pages of a book and then re­alised you haven’t ab­sorbed any­thing be­cause you were think­ing about some­thing to­tally un­re­lated – like the best place to go for ta­cos or what to wear to­mor­row – that was your DMN tak­ing over.

The DMN can switch on and off in the blink of an eye, re­search shows. But you can also be in it for hours – dur­ing, say, a quiet walk in the woods.

Ei­ther way, spend­ing time in your DMN ev­ery day is crit­i­cal: “It cre­ates re­ju­ve­na­tion in the brain, when you can chew on or con­sol­i­date in­for­ma­tion and make mean­ing out of what’s go­ing on in your life,” says Mary He­len Im­mordino-Yang, an as­so­ciate Let your brain wan­der freely sev­eral times through­out the day, and you’ll feel calmer and more con­tent.

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