“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
I sniffed, startled by a burning smell. As I ran downstairs, the smoke alarm in the kitchen started blaring, the room filling with choking gray smoke. I grabbed some oven mitts and opened the oven door, pulled out the blackened biscuits that I had left too long. I opened all the windows and fanned a broom at the alarm until it quieted down. Sighing, I scraped the inedible, blackened chunks of dough into the garbage.
Cook anything too long and you get a scorched mess.
I suddenly flashed on that Nancy Reagan-era, War On Drugs commercial from the late 1980’s showing an egg (“This is your brain.”) and a searing-hot skillet (“This is drugs.”). Then some faceless hand cracked the egg into the skillet to reveal a fried, greasy over-easy (“This is your brain on drugs.”). The narrator added a rhetorical, “Any questions?”
I stared at my would-be dinner. This is your brain on the go.
A quick peek at my calendar seems to be accompanied by a long sigh these days. The world has reopened and suddenly I’m as busy as I was pre-quarantine. Or possibly even busier. As a small business owner who was essentially shut down for four months last year, I find myself agreeing to any and all opportunities to make up for that lost revenue.
But to what end? What’s the point of understanding that I need a break if I’m not actually going to take it?
Last week I wrote about the life-changing decision I made to work less this summer so that I could have more time to literally do nothing. I was telling my friend Allison about it when she reminded me that doing nothing is an illusion. It’s actually when our bodies are fairly still that the biggest and most beneficial changes happen inside them.
When we get overscheduled and overwhelmed, our nervous systems ratchet upwards to keep us going through our longer-than-necessary days. But it’s like leaving our brains in the oven too long.
Despite what our Puritan, bootstrap culture tells us, rest is necessary for inspiration, motivation, attention, intuition, and resilience. It isn’t simply recovering from work, but is itself – as Aristotle calls it – noble leisure, an aspiration and an essential skill set.
When we actively rest, the neural connections in our brains actually shrink. That’s right. In noble leisure, our brains shrink by almost 20 percent! And this is a really, really good thing. In this shrunken state, the synapses – or brain connections – can reset. Neurons that aren’t being used get pruned and thrown away, leaving more space to receive new input. The brain is then washed with cerebrospinal fluid, clearing out metabolic build-up. It’s like cleaning out the fridge. You throw away the expired salad dressing, wipe off the crusty ketchup, and reorganize so that the things you use most are within easy reach.
This process leaves us with a stronger memory and better decision-making skills. But without sufficient rest, there’s no pruning, cleaning, and reorganizing time. Your neurons get overloaded and scorched, like my poor biscuits. Burned up. And then, eventually, burned out as well. Scientists call this cerebral congestion.
But rest is a commitment and not an easy one. We’ve been trained to feel guilty anytime we aren’t displaying visible busyness, to equate our value with productivity. Even on our days off, we feel the pull to return emails, post on social media, or tackle a few items on our never ending to-do list.
We have to carve out time to truly allow our minds to wander (and wonder). Boredom is a lost art; it gives our brains time to percolate and process. Rest look different to each of us. It might be a long bath or a good book or working a jigsaw puzzle. It could look like a short cat nap or staring into the distance or taking some deep, intentional breaths. Whatever it looks like, write it in your calendar as you would any other essential appointment. Because it is.