Every wonder why, after checking Facebook or trolling for stuff on the Internet, you feel exhausted? Part of the reason is that the brain’s processing capacity is overtaxed—and limited. According to Daniel Levitin, the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University and the author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, “Every day we’re assaulted with facts, pseudofacts, news feeds and jibber-jabber, coming from all directions. According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986.”
Levitin explains that the brain’s attentional system has two dominant modes that the brain switches between. The first is the task-positive network comes into play when you’re engaged, focused and undistracted on a task. The task-negative network takes over when you are daydreaming, your brain taking the equivalent of a walkabout.
Both of these modes are essential for healthy brain function. Productivity requires a sharp focus, and creativity requires daydreaming. The problems arise when the brain doesn’t get its much-needed breaks, or when the brain has to switch between modes too frequently (they modes are mutually exclusive—when one mode is active the other isn’t). Toggling between frivolous emails and more serious work can make us feel dizzy, scattered, and tired.
So if you want more focus, as well as more insight, the answer sounds very Zen: When you work, work, and when you wander, wander. How this translates into the nuts and bolts of your daily schedule reads as old school. Start doing one thing at a time, foregoing multitasking for single pointedness. Levitin recommends partitioning the day into project periods and bracketing social media for specific times during the day. “Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes,” he says.
The counterpoint to these sustained periods is taking a break—a biological imperative for true restoration. Eschew the prejudice that taking breaks is the first step to full fledged slackerhood. Treat yourself to a brain reboot, and it’s a win-win all around. Your work actually improves, plus your soul gets a chance to be nourished.
Here are my four favorite ways to let my neurons roam free:
Taking walks in nature, where you can take in the scenery without it needing your sustained attention, is a fantastic way to invite your mind to loosen up. If you’re feeling frazzled or burnt out, spending just five minutes in a natural setting—your backyard, a park or even looking out your window at a wide swath of sky—can refresh your brain.
Clean lines of sight
A cluttered desk makes for a cluttered mind. All those odds and ends vie for your visual attention, taking your thoughts in a million directions. Uncluttered spaces, clear lines of sight and good organization give your brain a visual respite—and naturally encourage inner reflection. Even something as innocuous as family photos can be a distraction, as they tend to trigger specific—and often distracting— thoughts.
Several studies suggest a link between listening to music and a reduction in anxiety. Music sets the mind on a nonlinear journey, where pitch, tempo and harmony can all trigger a relaxation response.
I saved the best for last. Just closing the eyes for ten minutes can improve cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue.