Or the shower. More often than not, when I’m working on a tough problem, the answer finally comes to me when I’m letting my brain rest – when I stop relentlessly noodling about something and lose myself in daydreaming. In college, it was a seemingly insolvable calculus problem; in graduate school it was a simple step I was missing in coding a webpage. And now I find that if I can consciously stop thinking about something for an hour or overnight, the solution that has been eluding me floats forward as if by magic.

The Myth of Powering Through

One of the ironies on the need for the brain to rest is that for me, it’s mental work to walk away from work. When I’m tempted to power through an issue or force a solution when I feel stuck, that’s when I need to take a step back and reframe for myself that it’s ok to stop working. It’s not only ok, it’s the best way to make room for a creative solution to emerge.

Short Term Thinking

Last month I wrote about being more intentional about planning for downtime. I talked about it as a way I could manage my calendar, tasks, and projects with the aim of actually taking all my earned leave. While all of those things are important to me, an ulterior motive was to find a better way to schedule time for my brain to rest. When I’m in high gear and trying to power through, which I just declared a myth, I find that I can become overly focused on tasks. Visionary and strategic thinking doesn’t happen when my eyes are burning from staring at my computer screen too long and I’m trying to get through five more emails before I call it a day.

Some Things that Work for Me

Driving – Because I have a long commute, I often have breakthrough ideas going to or from work. I can almost feel my brain untangling. When this happens, I simply call myself or a colleague and leave a voice message to clear the thought from my brain and let a new one through.

Grooming – Whether it’s taking a shower or putting on my make-up, I really zone out when I’m in this space. It doesn’t work if I’m in a rush or have other distractions in the room. Maybe it works the same for men who shave every morning?

Sleeping – This one seems pretty obvious. This works best for me if I actually sleep through the night and have a gentle awakening. Again, if I don’t have to hurry, ideas are more likely to float to the surface. Decisions are much easier too. Some problem that seemed so complicated when I was exhausted has an obvious solution revealed in the morning.

Playing – One thing I know works for me is taking a vacation that is a real vacation. For my brain to rest, it needs for me not to be needed. When I’m at home or work, there is usually someone or something competing for my attention. Being somewhere different than is typical for me, where I can wiggle my toes in the sand, watch waves crash on the beach, or ski solo down a quiet mountain creates space for my brain to rest while I play.

Meditating – In addition to meditation, I also self-hypnotize. I’m not great at either one of these techniques, but the more I practice, the more my brain responds. When I read about the recent discovery of a wave of stars being born over a 50 million billion mile stretch of the Milky Way it called to mind the highly relaxed mental state I can reach in self-hypnosis. It’s called a stellar nursery.

Using my brain for something different – Doing something creative like writing this blog or baking is one way to let my brain rest. Sometimes these activities lead to the flow state. Along the same lines, doing something way outside my comfort zone physically or psychically also works. Even going to a professional conference can activate the resting state of my brain if I leave room between sessions for new ideas to sink in and seek out conversations with people I’ve never met before.

In the last month, I’ve learned how much effort it takes for me to schedule and take time off. I’ve become more aware of my tendency to become overly focused on tasks when I try to push through. And I’ve come to relish the times when I take intentional steps to let my brain rest so that ideas can flow freely like billions of stars being born.

Recommended Reading:

Q&A: Why a Rested Brain is More Creative; Taking breaks – from naps to sabbaticals – can help us to refocus and recharge. Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, September 1, 2016. Accessible article with nice examples from the author.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Robert M. Sapolsky. 2017. My oft-recommended and favorite book about the brain.

How to Change your Mind. What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Michael Pollan. 2018. This is a fascinating book about the brain. I’m not recommending anyone start taking magic mushrooms.