It’s that time of year again: the end-of-year project deadlines are looming, you’ve just found out when the in-laws will be visiting, and your inbox is clogged with ads flogging fares to everywhere from Madagascar to London. Yep, the holidays are coming.
Hopefully you have made plans to get away, a commitment backed up by purchased tickets and accommodation bookings. If that’s not the case or worse, you were thinking you might flag your holidays and just keep working, you could be making a serious career mistake.
Yes, we said career: to not go for needed downtime is an error of judgment which will ultimately affect you not only personally, but also in terms of your capacity for creative, productive output at work. People need regular breaks, and what’s more, we have known this for millennia; it is programmed into our language, and now science is backing up our intuitive understandings.
The importance of “re”
If there is one little word-part in the English language which attests to our psyche’s grasp of the profound need to get away from it all occasionally in order to cope better when we return, that morpheme has to be “re-“. Thousands of years before employers were mandated by laws to give employees paid time off, English was already recognising the importance of doing so with a proliferation of “re” words. Just look at the list. When we go on holiday we:
• Rejuvenate, Relax, Renew
• Restore, Regenerate, Recreate
• Recuperate, Rebalance, Reevaluate
• Recharge, Realign, Refresh
• Refuel Revitalise Reenergise
And the list goes on. A dictionary check confirms what we know about “re”: it means “again”, or “back”. The act of going on holiday, taking a break from regular activities, provides the opportunity to revitalise body and mind by distancing yourself from job-related and other stress. By immersing yourself in new routines, environments, foods, and social circles, you enhance your health and may be led to sparkling insights. A holiday affords a return - a turning back - to the essence of yourself, a level that gets buried under the busy-ness of life.
The value of doing nothing
We have known throughout history that devotion to full-time activity (such as we often see in Australia) doesn’t actually translate to greater productivity, and it certainly isn’t healthy long-term. To remain industrious and generative, our brains sometimes need to just be idle.
"Idleness” wrote Tim Kreider in the New York Times, “ is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."
Just stop for a minute: Science and the DMN
Maybe you knew this all along. But were you aware of the torrent of scientific research now finding that rested brains are better ones? Many new studies focus on the recently-discovered circuit in the brain known as the DMN, for default mode network. Challenging the 20th-century idea that idle brains are unproductive, researchers noticed that a particular set of scattered brain regions consistently became less active when someone concentrated on a mental challenge, but began to fire together in a coordinated way when people were lying in an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, letting their thoughts wander. Further studies confirmed that this wasn’t a fluke: investigations uncovered a complex circuit of disparate brain regions which came to life when people were “just” daydreaming. This network came to be called the DMN.
When we have moments of restfulness from mental challenges, the DMN fires up in the blink of an eye – literally – (including periods as short as the nano-second it takes us to blink!), and sets about its various tasks of coordinating memories, developing our understanding of human behaviour, instilling a deeper sense of ethics, and generally fostering processes which affirm our human identities. While our minds are free to wander, we make sense of what we have recently learned, reflect on unresolved tensions which surface, replay conversations, and review recent interactions in order to figure out how to do better in future. It is in these moments of introspection which we most profoundly form a sense of self: our story of who we are, our personal narrative of “I-ness”.
What do we mean by “break”?
You might say, “Well, ok. If this is all true, can’t I just take mini-breaks: say, through a walk in the park at lunch, a brief meditation period, or some other little downtime while I’m working?” Good question. And science would say not only that you can, but you should. The DMN and literally thousands of studies affirm the life- and brain-enhancing capacity of moments of downtime interwoven with regular life. But, given our human tendency to say that we “should” do something and then not get around to it, an enforced period of rest and renewal as found in the typical summer holiday break may just give that revitalising jump start to the coming year – and help ensure your continued stellar performance at work as well. So go on - this summer, do the “re” thing: relax; renew; regenerate!