How Downtime (aka Chillaxing) Can Be Productive

Jul 13, 2016 | Stress

Downtime – what’s that?

My 6-year-old likes to tell me when she’s “just chillaxin’.” She appears to be quite good at it. And why not? She’s got the time.

But what about us adults? OK, other than the fact that the word might be a little silly for some adults (though it’s now in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary), we don’t seem to get the chillaxing thing so much – summertime or not.

Let’s face it, adults have always got something to do.

When you think about what most of us do in the course of a week, there’s usually not much left for just plain downtime. Between family, work, planning, projects and all the fun maintenance tasks like laundry, dishes and yard work – ugh, I’m already feeling exhausted – what’s left?

Or, if we’re not doing those tasks, we might be checking the phone, searching the web, or even just deciding on our next task.

Maybe it’s time to turn some of those activities into good old-fashioned, device-free downtime.

Because downtime has some major benefits.

Benefits of downtime

Most of us know about the obvious benefits of downtime like simple relaxation, which can slow the breath and the heart rate – essentially the opposite effect of the stress response that puts the body on heightened alert.

During downtime, the body has no need for a rush of adrenaline or cortisol. It’s a signal to your brain that it can slow down and get out of action or problem-solving mode.

But there’s more…

A chillaxing network in our brains

According to neuroscience, our brains operate on a different network when we’re in a resting state. You might think that it’s sort of idle, but actually the brain is still working, just in a different way.

Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas come when you’re not trying to think about anything in particular? That when you’re not trying to solve a problem or remember something, the answer might just pop into your mind? You may be in the shower or brushing your teeth, and suddenly the thought comes.

In recent years, neuroscience has discovered a circuit in the brain that is activated during resting states called the default mode network (DMN).

Though more research is being done, what we know is that when this network in our brain is activated, we shut out external stimulation and reflect internally.

The DMN helps the brain process information about the self, about others, about the past and about the future. It helps us to make sense of the world and ourselves – some pretty important functions, right? (For a detailed piece on DMN, check out this Scientific American article.)

This important network is activated when we are chillaxing (as my 6-year-old would say). It happens when we’re not focused on tasks and problem-solving, when we’re daydreaming or meditating.

DMN can also be activated when we are performing activities that are second-nature so that the brain doesn’t need to focus on them, like taking a shower, brushing teeth or doing dishes or laundry.

I know I get all kinds of new thoughts and insights during or soon after meditation, and sometimes during a mundane task.

Take a rest from trying

What I’ve noticed in recent months since learning about the DMN, is that I need more of it. I had been struggling too hard to solve problems, to the point of spinning my wheels. (Anyone else identify with this?)

What happens is that we keep going, going, going because we feel we must work and think and act to move forward, so we remain busy yet somehow don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Sometimes when we feel like we’re trying very hard, we might be trying too hard. Sometimes it’s the opposite of doing and trying that we need.

That’s when our brains need to switch on the DMN.

Without a task or problem to focus on, the brain can wander and explore other ideas.

When we sit and try to solve something, we can get stuck in a particular way of thinking, but when we are in DMN, it’s more of a wandering state in the brain which can open up all sorts of new pathways and ideas.

When I started to take a step back, away from my To Do list, away from the computer and the phone, to go on walks or to meditate more, then I started gaining some insights and clarity.

The same can happen in coaching. When a client turns off problem-solving mode, slows down and relaxes, sometimes just a simple question will spark a new insight.

C’mon, just chillax…

So the next time you feel like you are stuck without a solution or are spinning your wheels, try to get yourself some downtime.

Chillaxing doesn’t have to mean you’re being unproductive. Doing nothing can actually be just what you need to find a new solution, insight or inspiration.

So go for a walk, daydream, chill out, take a bath, sit on a beach, meditate – try to do nothing. Go ahead – it is summertime, after all.

And if you have any friends in need of more downtime, please send or post this via an icon below. Then, go find a hammock…

Photo by Nicole Harrington at unsplash.com.

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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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