Do you ever feel like life is simply work, sleep, eat, repeat? Do you regularly set aside time for yourself to stop and unwind, engaging in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing? Or are you constantly rushing from pillar to post with back to back meetings, eating lunch at your desk, working late, spending your evenings simultaneously watching TV, checking emails and working through your personal to do list, then dragging yourself off to bed where you’ll be lucky if you get 6 hours sleep before waking up and doing it all over again?
Most of us believe that the harder and longer we work, and the busier we are, the more productive and effective we will be, but research proves that this belief couldn’t be further from the truth. We sacrifice sleep to get more done, but sleep loss alone results in an average of 11.3 days in lost productivity annually, costing the economy billions.
Even with adequate sleep, constantly being “switched on” during our waking hours depletes our cognitive resources. As a result, mental fatigue impairs our ability to concentrate, allowing us to be more easily distracted, reduces our motivation and enthusiasm for the task at hand, and decreases our productivity and performance. In the long term the physiological and psychological pressure of being continually “switched on” during our day, severely reduces our resilience and increases our risk of burnout and chronic fatigue.
Just like our bodies, our brains need to rest too. Research reveals that mental breaks and downtime increase productivity, replenish attention and motivation, strengthen memory and encourage creativity. If you find yourself reading the same page over and over again or staring blankly at your screen you may be experiencing acute mental fatigue, and your inability to focus is your brain’s way of telling you that it needs a break. We are not machines, we cannot stay in the performance zone continuously, we need downtime and recovery breaks to replenish our cognitive resources and recharge our energy levels.
If you really want to build resilience, and improve productivity and performance, start by incorporating breaks and periods of downtime into your daily routine.
How does it work?
Cognitive Fatigue. Attention or concentration is separated into two systems: voluntary attention which is directed and controlled by executive cognitive processes, and involuntary attention which is triggered by important or intrinsically fascinating stimuli in the environment. The dynamic relationship between these two systems controls where our attention is directed. Voluntary attention allows us to focus on a specific task whilst suppressing distracting stimuli from the environment. Most work-related tasks require voluntary attention and other executive functions such as working memory, decision making, and planning for extended periods of time. However, voluntary attention is not automatic and therefore requires significant mental effort to sustain. Focusing on the same task for extended periods of time causes acute cognitive fatigue, resulting in progressive worsening of performance as duration on task increases. Involuntary attention on the other hand requires no mental effort and when activated allows the executive cognitive processes (voluntary attention) to recharge, recover, and replenish. Anything that fascinates us – capturing and holding our attention with little to no effort, whilst taking our minds away from potentially stressful or fatiguing tasks, activates involuntary attention allowing our brains to rest and recover.
Autonomic Imbalance. Studies have shown that acute cognitive fatigue from spending extended time on tasks that require executive brain functions (attention, decision making, memory), not only impairs cognitive performance but also results in an imbalance to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS controls the stress response (sympathetic nervous system – SNS) and the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system – PSNS). Alterations of autonomic functions, such as decreased PSNS activity and increased relative SNS activity, have been reported in patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Acute cognitive fatigue exhausts the resources of the pre-frontal cortex which is the area of the brain responsible for executive functions. The pre-frontal cortex also plays an important role in regulating the stress response by inhibiting stimulation of the SNS. When the pre-frontal cortex is fatigued its ability to inhibit stimulation of the SNS is compromised resulting in increased activation of the SNS (stress response) and decreased activation of the PSNS (relaxation and recovery). Thus, reduced PSNS activity seems to be a characteristic feature of acute mental fatigue. To make matters worse chronic stress shrinks the pre-frontal cortex, both negatively effecting cognitive performance and ANS balance, and additionally increasing the risk for chronic fatigue syndrome.
Default Mode Network (DMN). When we experience moments of downtime our brains are not idle, they are active. Downtime activates the DMN which is an interconnected group of brain structures that transfer messages and information as part of a functional system. The DMN was discovered when researchers noticed surprising levels of brain activity in participants who were supposed to be “at rest” – in other words they were not engaged in a specific mental task, but just resting quietly. Epiphanies are examples of the DMN is action. When we take our mind away from the problem we are trying to solve our brains seem to find the solution unconsciously. This is possible due to the interconnectedness of the DMN and its ability to integrate information across multiple areas of the brain, interestingly incidence of higher activation of the DMN has been found in more creative people. So, if you are looking for a boost in your creativity then providing your brain with more downtime may be the stimulant you require. MRI studies of the brain have also shown that memory consolidation and learning occur while in downtime (awake but resting), which was previously only believed to occur during sleep, again re-enforcing the evidence that downtime and recovery while awake improves cognitive performance.
Want to know more?
- Behav Brain Funct. 2011; 7: 17. Mental fatigue caused by prolonged cognitive load associated with sympathetic hyperactivity.
- Department of Psychology, University of Guelph, Canada. Vol 2, issue 8, 2015: The reduction of directed attention fatigue through exposure to visual natural stimuli.
- Harvard Business Review, June 2016. Stress Article: Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure. Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan.
- Re-awakening Australia: The economic cost of sleep disorders in Australia, 2010. Sleep Health Foundation October 2011
- 2011 Sep 1;34(9):1161-71. Insomnia and the performance of US workers: results from the America insomnia survey.
- Scientific American article: Why your brain needs more downtime – https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/
- Healthy Mind Platter developed by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute and Clinical Professor at the UCLA School of Medicine in collaboration with Dr. David Rock, Executive Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute. http://www.drdansiegel.com/resources/healthy_mind_platter/#activities
- Harvard Business Review, 2014. Work-life balance article: Research: Using a Smartphone After 9 pm Leaves Workers Disengaged
- Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 2014. Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business.