By Stuart R. Levine
Published in, Forbes
Perpetual movement without rest decreases productivity . In reality, it yields the opposite. Working without downtime, reduces efficiency and creativity and often invites emotional, psychological, and physical stress. The brain needs downtime to remain productive, gain perspective and generate innovative ideas. Downtime gives the mind an opportunity to make unexpected connections and provide new inspirations and insights.
However, in today’s increasingly demanding and fast-paced world, stress seems to dominate. Ensuring space and time at any point during the day or night for time to unplug often feels impossible. People are overly pre-occupied with work deliverables and ensconced in their technology. Gallop reports that work is a prime source of stress for Americans with 79% feeling frequent stress (44%) or some stress (35%) in their daily lives. A real shift in mindset about downtime at the organizational and the personal level is needed to literally give people time to create and rejuvenate. Workplace cultures that take into account and take advantage of what science is uncovering about the workings of the mind and how to encourage and stimulate creativity, clarity, and productivity will not only have the most engaged employees but the most innovative strategies and ability to implement effectively.
Downtime greatly improves the possibility of generating novel thoughts. Albert Einstein, one of the most creative minds of the 20th century, had a regular practice of allowing himself plenty of quiet time. His biographer, Walter Isaacson describes how Einstein would pass hours alone thinking, often during long walks in nature or sailing on his boat. These serene quiet times allowed creative and original answers to difficult problems to come to him.
Cognitive neuroscience’s investigation of creativity makes sense of Einstein’s behavior and tells how quiet time can be productive for everyone, not just geniuses like Einstein. In one series of studies, Penn State‘s Dr. Roger Beaty led an international team of researchers that used scanning technology to identify patterns of brain connectivity. While one is relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not stop working. A neural network called the default mode network (DMN) is engaged and many important processes are occurring. Even in this resting state, the brain consumes about 20% of the body’s energy production. The brain uses only 5 – 10% more energy during deep concentration.
Beaty and his team found that people produced novel innovative solutions to problems during this relaxed state, when the DMN and the areas of the brain associated with focus and memory all were engaged. It appears that for many people, “wasted” moments of being lost in thought, are actually resulting in the opposite effect of generating creativity and important insights.
From an organizational perspective, when a company intentionally incorporates downtime into the culture, productivity, creativity, and the overall well-being of the employee can improve. Research by Harvard Business School’s Dr. Leslie Perlow documented how specific predictable time away from work and devices had just such an effect. She found that it is not enough to pay lip service about an employee taking their allotted time off. Managers, team members, and the individual all made sure that each professional took their scheduled personal time with exceptions only for true emergencies, which were quite rare. This became part of the culture. As a result, the professionals were reinvigorated and better able to prioritize. They felt their job was more fulfilling and took greater pride in their accomplishments. The work product improved, engagement increased, and turnover decreased.
Unstructured quiet time without distractions, can allow creative thoughts to arise spontaneously. Stanford’s Dr. Carol Dweck describes how a person’s mindset, the underlying beliefs about their ability, affects personal growth. If we believe intrinsically that we can grow, learn and improve our abilities (growth mindset), that helps make growth and improvement a reality. If we believe that our talents and abilities are unchanging (fixed mindset), lack of growth generally manifests. If we adopt a mindset that appreciates how quiet time contains the potential for creativity and innovation, these results can happen almost magically. The success of quiet time becoming creative time will feed on itself and reinforce the creative mindset. A tranquil walk in a pleasant setting or sitting quietly and meditating, become opportunities for the “resting” mind to brim with creativity and innovation.
Breaks are simply needed to replenish the brain’s energy. Some forward-looking companies, especially those with a large portion of millennial employees understand these important forward-thinking concepts. Some companies provide calm quiet spaces for restoration. Brief naps of 20 minutes maximum can truly refresh the brain .
Mindfulness meditation is increasingly being considered as a way to provide mental well-being and creativity. Anecdotal and empirical evidence establishes that meditation hones concentration, strengthens memory, and brings creative insights and well-being. Medication that focuses on breathing without any agenda, that simply lets the mind wander and flow provides not only calm afterwards, but often fertile thoughts that have a positive impact on one’s professional and personal life. As the Sufi poet, Rumi said: “The quieter you become the more you are able to hear.”