Who Knew Downtime Would Be My Greatest Colleague?

I am a go-getter. I hate down time. I’m an analytical researcher who will go to the end of the earth to solve the problem, analyze the data, and understand the reasoning and the why.  Action-oriented, solution-focused, and driven by productivity – if you tell me to go take some downtime and “let things marinate”, you might catch my eye roll.  All too often I prefer to ignore the growing body of scientific research that suggests that taking breaks and allowing our minds to wander is actually crucial for tackling problems creatively and effectively. The idea of stepping away and letting my brain… well, breathe, feels like surrendering.

I wish I could say that I reached the end of the internet and was forced to take downtime – but in reality, the truth is that I was feeling fried. The problem that I was trying to solve doesn’t matter.  What does matter is the process that was revealed. Burned out and zonked, I went outside and started to pull some weeds (maybe if I rewrite this post, I’ll say I was tending to my beautiful English garden and home-grown vegetables).  Some weeds came out easily, some threw my back out (must exercise more…) and without knowing it my mind wandered. And, as I kept going and my arm started to get sore, something significant happened.  A fresh idea arose, a possible solution. I felt refreshed, creative and excited with a newfound energy and zest I hadn’t felt for a while.  It was so new and different that I had to take a moment and think: “if that idea came from me, why couldn’t I think of it before?”  

If you are still reading, by now you know that I’m a process person – so of course I had to research the research on why sometimes it’s better to let go of the research and let your mind rest. And here is what I found:

Did you know that brain scans reveal a fascinating phenomenon called the default mode network (DMN)? This network becomes active when we're not consciously focused on a task, and it's during this time that our brains make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. Essentially, downtime allows the DMN to work its magic, fostering creativity and problem-solving in the background.

Our brains are bombarded with information every day. Studies put out by the Cleveland Clinic suggest that downtime is essential for consolidating and storing this information into memories. When we allow our minds to relax, we're giving them the space to process and organize all that we've encountered, making it easier to access and utilize later when solving problems. Just like our muscles, our brains need breaks to function optimally. When we push ourselves too hard for too long, we experience mental fatigue, leading to decreased focus and poorer decision-making. Taking downtime allows our brains to recharge, improving our ability to tackle problems with fresh eyes.

So there you have the research on the research which shows that a-ha moments do exist and why they usually pop up seemingly out of nowhere. This is the power of downtime at work. Stepping away from a challenge allows your subconscious mind to continue working on it, sometimes leading to unexpected breakthroughs according to the Harvard Business Review.

So, the next time you feel the urge to power through a problem, consider taking a break. Go for a walk, listen to music, or go ahead and weed.  Don’t stress if you are taking a break the “right way” – (another issue that sometimes pops up for me --- another blog post, another time….). You might be surprised by the creative insights that emerge when you give your mind a chance to relax. And you will have discovered a new and great colleague to boot.