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These are the 3 types of mental downtime your brain needs

Targeting different sources of mental fatigue can help make your time away from work be more restorative.

These are the 3 types of mental downtime your brain needs
[Photo: S Migaj/Pexels]
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Over the past decade, it has become clearer to many that being “on” 24/7/365 is not a recipe for success. Discussions about work-life balance and the need to take vacations are signs that we understand that getting away from work is important for mental and physical health.

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It’s useful to dig a little more into what you’re trying to accomplish with your downtime, though. The more you understand about what you’re trying to achieve, the easier it becomes to recognize when you might need to take a little extra time away from work. In addition, you can do a better job of tailoring your activities to what your brain requires in order to hit the ground running when you return to work again.

A chance to clear your mind

One problem with a constant focus on work is that you often end up thinking about the critical problems you’re facing in the same way, which can lead you to bang your head repeatedly against the same walls. There are several intersecting factors that lead to this similarity in focus.

First, when you remain engaged with thinking about an issue constantly, your description of the problem remains the same. The way you describe something influences what knowledge you’re reminded of that might help you address it. Without getting a new perspective on the problem, you will be unlikely to retrieve other things you know that will help you think differently about it.

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By getting away from work for a while, though, three things happen that can benefit your ability to think differently about the problems you’re facing. First, your memory of the problem changes when you step away from it. You tend to think about things more abstractly as specific details that had been your previous focus become less prominent. That can change what you’re reminded of. Second, when you walk away from the problem, the information from memory that has been most accessible so far has a chance to fade, and so you get a fresh opportunity to retrieve new information, which might also result in some additional knowledge coming to the fore. Finally, the activities you engage in while you are not actively working on a problem may also serendipitously remind you of things you have encountered that might allow you to attack the problem anew when you return to work.

A relaxation of executive control

A lot of the work you do also requires you to step through key tasks proactively. You have to maintain your focus on key pieces of information and avoid distractions. You have to drive your thinking rather than allowing it to be buffeted by the information available in the environment. This ability to stay focused on tasks that you want to complete is called executive control.

Maintaining this focus is difficult, and you can clearly get tired of doing it. That is one reason why you’re often mentally fried by the end of the week. The need to complete key tasks and make important decisions creates mental fatigue.

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When you get away from work and feel this kind of exhaustion, you might want to recharge by engaging in activities in which you allow the world to drive your thinking rather than having to be internally driven in what you do. The reason why activities like watching a movie or concert can be so restorative is that they allow other people to do the work of determining what you’re going to think about for a while. Even listening to an audiobook or podcast at the end of a workday or during a work break can give your executive control facilities a chance to rest.

A restoration of calm

A third big source of mental fatigue is anxiety. Anxiety is your emotional response to potential threats in your world. Unfortunately, a lot of our workday is driven by the elimination of potential problems. You may complete tasks to make sure that clients or supervisors don’t get upset. You might focus on ensuring that competitors don’t undermine your business.

Broadly speaking, you often think about your responsibilities at work. A responsibility is generally something you do to ensure that some bad outcome doesn’t occur. So, a lot of your work life involves the feeling that if you don’t act efficiently, calamity might result. That cycle of stress is exhausting. It is one reason why so many people end their workday with a little self-medication like a beer or a cocktail. But that medication numbs the stress; it doesn’t eliminate it.

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If stress is making it hard to get work done, develop some activities to help you calm yourself. One of the benefits of mindfulness meditation is that it can be quite effective at reducing stress. Making mindfulness exercises part of your normal routine can help. Other calming activities, like a massage, a quiet bath, or a long walk, can help too. Add one or more of these calming experiences to your daily routine.