Spring arrived in my neck of the woods just a few days before the official changing of the seasons. It came on a weekend, which brought the whole town to life. The beautiful Snake River—the jewel of the area—seemed to change from a white icy path to a glistening ribbon of blue overnight, and suddenly everyone was out walking, biking, skating, and pushing strollers around it. I even saw a panting black lab pulling his owner along on a skateboard!
It seems we all want to get out and play this time of year, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one who feels a little guilty giving in to the compulsion. After all, there is so much still to do, and so little time. Even as I’m getting ready to head out the door, that little voice in the back of my head is jabbering on and on about this project and that project I have yet to complete.
I found a good reason to ignore that voice. Too much work results in a dull boy, as the saying goes, or worse, can create…
What’s Cerebral Congestion?
A common ailment, cerebral congestion affects writers of all types, as well as other dedicated folks who require their brains to be firing, creative and productive, all hours of the day and night. Writers who have day jobs and then return home to dedicate their off hours to their own creative pursuits—novels, short stories, poems, what have you—can be even more at risk, because all that stuff in their heads just keeps piling up with no release.
Add to this the constant barrage of information we must receive, sort through, categorize, and decide what to do with in today’s tech-loving world, and pretty soon you end up with a congested brain. If it had nostrils, it wouldn’t be able to breathe.
“A friend of mine once described her brain as a washing machine,” writes Hallie Smith for Scientific Learning, “tumbling and tossing the requests and information that hit her at work from every direction. Many people I know feel the same way—overwhelmed by the onslaught of knowledge and to-dos that accompany the always-on smartphone era.”
Is it any surprise that when we turn to the blank page and try to create, we often find our brains stubbornly uncooperative?
Why You Need Some Time in Nature
Idleness may have been looked upon with disdain for most of our lives, but research is now showing us what many writers may have already known—down time makes the brain work better, especially if we break away from the gadgets and go do something totally different.
The New York Times reports that when five scientists ditched their cell phones and went rafting on the San Juan River, they found themselves discussing exciting new ideas that their brains had failed to produce while they were in the lab or the office.
“The expectation of e-mail seems to be taking up our working memory,” said Steven Yantis, chairman of the psychological and brain sciences department at Johns Hopkins.
“To the extent you have less working memory, you have less space for storing and integrating ideas and therefore less to do the reasoning you need to do,” added Art Kramer, professor at the University of Illinois.
A 2008 study from the University of Michigan reported similar findings. Researchers had people take a walk through downtown and then another walk in the park. They found that those who walked in nature experienced improved cognitive functioning and attention.
“Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli,” the researchers wrote, “modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.”
Don’t have time to get out? Change your wallpaper. In this same study, researchers found that even contemplating pictures of nature created similar cognitive benefits.
Should Your Vacation Be Longer?
Time in a natural environment allows the brain to really recharge. Unfortunately, a lot of us use our downtime to catch up on research, update our Facebook pages, watch television, or otherwise continue the tasks that are so similar to those we do on a daily basis. That’s when the writing starts to get stale.
The brain “is not a machine,” writes Matthew J. Edlund, M.D. in Psychology Today. “It is a living, wondrously inventive, rapidly renewing organ….To get your brain to work better, here’s rule #1—rest for success.”
We think we’ll get more done by keeping our noses to the grindstone, but studies are beginning to show how incorrect that thinking is. Actually, the more vacations you take, the more productive you’re likely to be. At least, that was the conclusion when the accounting firm at Ernst & Young did an internal study of its employees. For each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings improved by 8 percent. Frequent vacationers were also significantly less likely to leave the firm.
In all my years of working, I had one boss who believed this way. He was constantly encouraging all of his employees not only to take vacations, but to take long vacations. Five days is just long enough to wind down, he used to tell us in meetings. You really need ten to truly rest and come back restored.
I remember being so impressed by this individual. By the way, he was the manager of a nursing home, and I have a feeling if more healthcare managers had his ideals, we’d have a happier elderly population across the nation because they’d be getting better care.
The Natural Pulse of Brain Activity
“Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously,” writes Tony Schwartz in The New York Times. “Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.”
You’ll notice this pulsing throughout the day if you pay close attention. About every few hours, your mind will cry out for attention. You’ll get restless. You’ll think you’re hungry. You’ll feel tired. What you really need is a mental break, but too often we decide what we need is coffee or chocolate or a blast of forcible will power.
Rest isn’t idleness, according to a 2012 study. When we daydream or turn our attention inward, the brain goes into what researchers call “default mode (DM)”—a type of functioning that is repressed when our attention is focused on the outside world. Writers know this as the mode that helps us create stories. Study results showed that brain rest or DM mode is critical for mental processing, particularly imagination.
In other words, there’s a reason we get our best ideas in the shower.
Do It Now!
“Currently, the speed of life doesn’t allow enough interstitial time for things to just kind of settle down,” freelance writer and meditation teacherMichael Taft tells Scientific American.
If you want the time off—and it’s critical for your writing, or for any creative endeavor—you have to steal it, as selfishly and as ruthlessly as possible. If it helps, remember that you’re doing your employer (or business or novel or whatever it is) a favor by getting out, as you’ll return a more productive and creative individual.
It’s nearly spring. If you need more incentive, I recommend this great article by Tony Schwartz. Take a day off. Take two. Take a spring vacation. Recharge. You’ll come back happier, your brain free of congestion, and you may be amazed at the breakthroughs you’ll experience with your writing.
Do you have a hard time convincing yourself it’s okay to take time off? Please share your thoughts.