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Coffee breaks for the brain

I hate forced idle time. I used to carry reading material with me everywhere, in case I had a few extra minutes. I still do that sometimes, but now I listen to podcasts more often. I break out the headphones at any excuse, even as little as walking between buildings at work, or while I’m falling asleep. It’s great. I can easily keep my brain engaged, no matter where I am or what else I’m doing.

I wonder if there’s a catch, though. At the end of a busy day, if I’ve had headphones on throughout my workout and commute and squeezed some quick reading into all the leftover moments, my brain feels a bit…cramped. Uncomfortably full. Like it’s had three square meals, and a bunch of snacks, and a big dessert, but hasn’t had a chance to digest anything. Which, arguably, is exactly what’s happened.

I’m no neurobiologist, but I’m familiar with the popular science, and it rings true for me personally. Sleep, for example – the ultimate idle time – probably plays a key role in building long term memory. The language center of the brain can’t multitask very well, if at all, especially in men. The subconscious is our best tool for problem solving and decision making.

As far as I can tell, my brain does most of its important thinking in the background. Prioritizing, synthesizing, introspecting, predicting, thinking holistically: it’s all critical, but I rarely do any of it explicitly. I add something to my todo list, or file it away in the back of my head, and when I come back to it an hour or day or week later, chances are it’s neatly broken down and incorporated into the big picture.

When I haven’t had enough idle time, when I’ve been especially aggressive with the headphones and books, I suspect this process gets backed up. I feel backlogged, mentally constipated, like I’m playing catch-up with all the connections and mental leaps that I should have been making. It’s not a good feeling.

I don’t have an addictive personality, in general. It’s a blessing. I work, eat, drink, watch TV, play games, and do all sorts of things in natural, easy moderation. Filling idle time, though…that might be an exception. I know I should relax sometimes, put the phone away and just let my mind drift, but it’s so hard.

What do you think? Do you ever feel the same? Have you found a way to protect that precious downtime and keep your brain rested and recharged? How do you do it?

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18 thoughts on “Coffee breaks for the brain

  1. So there is something really great about being able to be with yourself without the white noise of podcasts, or music or some other kind of filler. I have become a huge fan in the past year or so of “mindfulness” especially as prescribed by Thich Nhat Hanh. He defines it as “the energy that helps us be there 100%” (He especially encourages this when one is walking.) Far easier said than done, but it’s really rewarding and definitely helps mentally recharge. Strange note- sometimes when I am running I have my headphones in but nothing on, and then I can really clearly hear my own breathing. It’s nice. Try it sometime.

  2. One book on meditation I read said that a good introduction to the practice is to sit down and consciously decide to “waste” ten minutes. That is, when people of high activity like you attempt to meditate they’re like “ok (1) unplug podcast (2) focus on this new thing”, when what you’re really trying to do is unclench your brain. So instead, say something like, “my life is rich with time. I am going to take the next ten minutes and just throw them in the trash: not make forward progress on anything, just sit here and let things happen for a bit.”

  3. thanks for the advice, all! i took a beginning mediation class the other day, and I’ve started meditating as part of my daily routine. fingers crossed!

  4. Agree w others, sounds like you want to meditate! Lemme know how you do this year!

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