Most of our work nowadays is cognitively demanding work. In other words, work that requires our brain to be in optimal condition to pay attention, solve problems, be creative, and think deeply.
Whenever we’re doing cognitive demanding work, such as studying, writing, thinking, or researching, we need to make it a priority to regularly do ‘nothing’ in order to become more productive. For a-type personalities, this is probably not what you want to hear but stick with me.
When I’m talking about doing ‘nothing,’ I’m not suggesting you should binge-watch a series on Netflix while lying on the couch eating a bag of chips. In fact, this still drains a ton of energy from the brain, and it occupies valuable working memory. Instead, when I’m talking about doing ‘nothing’ more often, I’m referring to taking more breaks during your work — real breaks.
Why You Need To Do ‘Nothing’
By taking real breaks regularly, you’ll be able to process concepts, ideas, and new information effectively so that they get stored in your long-term memory. You give your brain the necessary time and space that is required for learning and forming new ideas. Most people, however, don’t give themselves this time and space despite thinking that they do — but more about that later.
Furthermore, as cognitive demanding work drains energy from the brain, you give it the necessary time to recharge during your breaks. This way, you’ll be able to approach your work with improved cognitive performance.
If you don’t take regular breaks — or when you take ‘fake’ ones — the brain can’t recharge effectively. This, in turn, negatively impacts your ability to think, focus, and solve difficult problems. In other words, you become much less productive even though you’re grinding non-stop for hours on end.
How Doing Nothing Helps You Learn, Form New Ideas and Process Information
David Rock, author of ‘Your Brain at Work,’ describes the brain as a stage (like in a theater) that can only carry about four ‘actors’ (which are ideas, concepts and pieces of information) at the same time.
When these actors are on stage long enough, they can effectively be transferred from the working memory to the long-term memory. In that case, we process the information accurately and it’s available for future reference to come up with productive new ideas or to solve challenging problems much faster.
The more important and complex the actor (the concept, idea or information), the more time he or she needs to be on stage in order to effectively be processed and transferred to the long-term memory.
However, a problem arises when new actors are called upon the stage before the old actors had enough time to be processed. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in today’s fast-paced world. We’re wired more and more to quickly check email, scroll through Instagram or read a text message — all putting new actors on the stage.
However, as there isn’t enough space on the stage to carry more than four actors, the brain will replace the old actors for the new actors, regardless of their value or importance.
By the way, this is also why it’s essential to write your most important thoughts and to-dos down instead of keeping them in mind. If not put onto paper, they will either occupy a valuable spot on your stage or you’ll forget them as new actors enter the stage.
This means that the old actors (again, the ideas, insights, or information that you were dealing with) are forced to go off the stage before they could be processed accurately. In other words, they don’t get transferred effectively from the working memory to long-term memory.
This way, we fail to grasp new concepts or learn new things — making us less productive.
It’s also one of the reasons why more and more people have trouble recalling recent conversations or remembering things that they just read in a book. As they’ve already flooded their ‘stage’ with many new actors by checking email, scrolling through Instagram or watching Netflix, the old actors had to go off stage too quickly to be processed effectively.
That’s why, while listening to the audiobook ‘Atomic Habits’ this morning, I took a break right after completing a chapter. This way, I could let the main idea of the chapter settle. The ‘actor’ could be on stage long enough so that it could be transferred from my working memory to my long-term memory.
In the past, however, I would’ve just rushed to the next chapter, asap. But, by doing so, the old actors would immediately be replaced by new actors as each chapter offers new ideas and concepts. Thus, the information from previous chapters practically ‘disappears’ as it doesn’t get enough time to settle in the brain.
Thus, after you’ve gained valuable new information or learned a new concept, give your brain space and time to process it effectively. Take a break from the material so that the actors can be on stage long enough for them to be stored in the long-term memory.
Unfortunately, most people don’t give themselves that many real breaks anymore. They think they take breaks, but in reality, they’re merely switching from their work to other brain-stimulating tasks such as scrolling through social media, checking news websites or quickly responding to email or other messages.
This way, new actors (in the form of a Facebook post, news article or message that someone sends you) are put on stage and replace the old actors (your work or study material).
The old actors, despite being more important, are thrown off stage before they could be processed effectively. This negatively impacts our personal growth and productivity as we have more trouble learning, remembering, and linking ideas with each other.
How Taking Breaks Helps You Stay Focused, Think Deeply and Solve Problems
As mentioned before, doing cognitive demanding tasks drains energy from the brain. The less energy available, the harder it is to solve difficult problems, think deeply, and stay focused. Whenever we’re engaged in this type of work for an extended period without taking a break, our cognitive performance suffers greatly — making us much less productive.
Instead, resolve to take a real 10-minute break every 60–90 minutes of work to recharge your energy and improve cognitive function. Make a cup of tea, go for a walk outside, meditate, listen to music, do some light exercise, or simply sit still and observe your environment.
By doing this regularly, you give the brain enough moments to rest and recharge — which will help with staying productive consistently throughout the day.
Again, avoid brain-stimulating activities like checking email, scrolling through social media or browsing through news websites. These things that most people do during their ‘breaks’ require the brain to keep working, as images, information, and new concepts need to be processed.
In those cases, the brain only loses energy instead of recharging it. This is why most people feel sluggish and tired as the workday progresses — and have much more trouble focusing on their work.
Now Do It
Since our default is set to seeking stimulating and distraction as often as possible, we need to train ourselves to do nothing more often. We need to make it a habit.
To do so, I suggest you try at least one of the following methods:
- Set a timer every 60–90 minutes to remind you to take a 10-minute break
- Use the Pomodoro technique, which forces you to take a 5-minute break every 25-minutes of highly focused work
- Use ‘lost’ time (such as standing in line at the coffee shop) to reflect on your work instead of instinctively checking your phone
If you continue to work without taking regular breaks — or by filling your ‘breaks’ with brain-stimulating activities — you don’t give your brain the necessary space and time to come up with new ideas or to process existing ideas, insights and information effectively.
Furthermore, as cognitive demanding work drains energy from the brain, you need to regularly take breaks in order to recharge. Otherwise, just like a muscle, it will be completely worn out and you’ll have a much harder time staying focused, solving difficult problems or being creative.
In other words, if you want to become more productive, you need to do ‘nothing’ more often.
To Your Personal Growth,
Founder Personal Growth Lab
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