Thoughts on Downtime

Lately I’ve been needing more downtime. Downtime for me are activities that are low stimulation activities. Downtime include stretching, spacing out, closing my eyes (whether or not falling asleep), going on walks, and doing household chores. Downtime (for me) does not include playing video games, watching television, or browsing Reddit. As little as 15 minutes of downtime correlates strongly with an increase in my subjective well being.

The concept of downtime is a relatively new concept to me. I originally had a strong attitude against downtime. I didn’t believe in deep rest, and felt like doing hard work was sustainable. After going through 2 burnouts in my life (once in college and another during work), I’m willing to soften my claim now.

One discovery that overturned my opinion on downtime was realizing that burnout is a well defined and studied phenomenon. When you’re burnt out, a series of physiological effects occur that make you less effective of a person. You’re less likely to respond positively to stimuli, you’re more stressed, and burnout affects sleep. Being burnt out is a bad place to be, and recovery can take months. Months of unproductive work is not worth squeezing out the extra 10% of efficiency in your day-to-day job.

I also used to think that downtime was superfluous because of the high variance of what people consider downtime. The reasoning goes that if different people have different notions of downtime, then if I could convince myself that a productive activity is actually downtime, I would be able to derive the upsides of downtime and the productive output of the activity.

Despite trying to adopt that attitude to the things I wanted to like, I’ve had very limited success with incorporating my work into my downtime. High variance of notions of downtime implying flexibility of each individual’s notion of downtime is a non-sequitur.

Being more experienced with downtime now, here are some subjective descriptions of what MY downtime feels like:

  • Freeform day-dreaming. Ability for mind to wander about ideas.
  • Light sleep. Similar to the description of the onset of sleep, it feels like my sympathetic nervous system is calming down and negative thoughts no longer has negative physiological responses.
  • Deafening of consciousness or focus.
  • Hard focus for long periods of time produces a sense of “congestion”. I’m able to accurately assess this by a simple working memory task. Usually by the time my brain is very congested, holding 3 things in working memory becomes a serious chore. Downtime feels like a drainage of that congestion.
  • Decompressing the memories and information in my prefrontal cortex/hippocampus.

I decided to look into the research of downtime, using keywords like “boredom”, “downtime.”

Scientific American has a good article that provides an overview of downtime and its relationship with stress and burnout. I’m also glad to see Cal Newport aligning with my position of embracing downtime and boredom. I wish there were a robust literature surrounding the effects of boredom.

The popular online course “Learning to Learn” also introduces downtime in their own terminology of “diffused mode” (compared to “focused mode”).  Scientific literature seems to agree on the benefits of the “diffused mode” thinking too.

During my brief research, it looks like academics use the word “boredom” to describe different sets of psychological/physiological phenomenons. Roughly speaking, one working definition of “boredom” involves the mind wandering (i.e. the concept we’ve been talking so far) and the other working definition involves the mind seeking novel stimuli. From the research it seems like research has unanimously agreed that “downtime” (one which the mind wanders) is beneficial for learning, creative thinking, and other factors of intelligence. The latter is more controversial, as studies that support/contradict boredom tend to be poorly designed experiments that conflate the two mental states.

Downtime seems to align how top performers perform as well. Scott H. Young, a blogger who has completed 4 years of a computer science degree in one year, still advocated downtime on top of a 60 – 80 hour workweek. I personally know high performers who spend a lot of downtime and I also know a lot of high performers who’ve burnt out by not having downtime. The tricky part of sampling from anecdotes is that it’s difficult to observe the lack of downtime. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

If downtime is clearly beneficial, why don’t more people do it? Despite understanding the positive effects myself, I still often end up not spending downtime. I find myself still drawn to high stimulus activities like video games or browsing Facebook even though I feel miserable afterwards. That seems to be more in line with the addictive nature of those activities in general paired with the ego depletion people begin to experience later in the night (and when downtime is most likely needed). When we experience akrasia, taking some time to stretch might sound appealing, but you also begin to lack the willpower to resist going on Reddit too. The solution to this is habit building and making doing addicting behavior hard.

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