Considering a Radical Move? You Probably Need a Vacation ASAP
When March 2020 hit, we braced for impact and prepared for what we believed would be a sprint, a short-term, high-intensity disruption. Sure, our world turned upside-down, but hope lived in the belief that all would soon return to “the way it was”. But May 2021 came, and the way it was has not made a comeback.
Our lives are still altered, our habits are still somewhat conditioned, and months and months of uncertainty, work demands, child caring, worrying about the health of our loved ones, and very few opportunities to pause, rest, recharge and renew are now sitting heavily in our minds and bodies, under different forms of exhaustion. For so many people, days are filled with heaviness and difficulty, prompting them to make radical decisions when what they desperately need is to book themselves a very nice vacation.
This is not all the workings of a pandemic. Our culture boasts and glorifies busyness as if it somehow attests that we are living meaningful productive lives. We measure the value of our time by how we use it to provide goods and services that others can benefit from. Time spent doing nothing has little to no value in our culture. It is however as indispensable to our brains as food is to our bodies. Idle time replenishes our focus, memory, creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making. Without it, we survive the days but we can’t possibly thrive.
The Power of Rest
We have a hard time with rest. It’s as if somehow we collectively bought into the belief that moving forward in life is only possible if we never stop. It makes very little sense if we reflect on it. If you embark on a fitness journey, and your goal is to get into the best shape of your life, you know you’ll have to work out regularly, but what you will either find out the hard way or an experienced personal trainer will tell you is that your muscles need to be challenged but they also need rest, in order to get to their optimal function. So if you skip your rest days you’re actually jeopardizing all the hard work and effort you put into your workouts, and your results will likely suffer.
When it comes to optimal brain function, one of the best things we can do is prioritize rest and unfocused time.
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is the brain's unfocus, or do-nothing network. But interestingly enough it requires more energy than any other network in the brain, using 20% of the body’s energy at rest, while effort demands just 5% more energy. The DMN is responsible for retrieving memories, linking ideas so that you can be more creative, and also helps you feel more self-connected because it is involved in representing and understanding yourself.
In the last 5 years, researchers discovered that the DMN is one of at least 5 other networks associated with rest states. To this day the DMN remains the most studied, and as studies so far show the most important one.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California, and her co-authors, recently reviewed the DMN network research and found that downtime is indeed essential to our mental processes, it helps us make sense not only of who we are, but instills a code of ethics, helps resolve tensions by bringing them to surface, and turns the focus inwardly and away from the external world. In our mind-wandering trips, we review conversations, mistakes, and rehearse different approaches to avoid repeating patterns or unwanted behaviors. It’s, therefore, an important part of learning.
Many studies also show that while daydreaming the mind solves though problems, many people experience this effect while taking a shower. Insights and epiphanies that seem to appear out of nowhere are actually the result of unconscious mental activity that takes place during downtime.
Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam designed a study in 2006 to understand how distractions play a role in decision making. They asked 80 students to choose the best car seat from a set of 4. What they weren’t aware of, was that the researchers had previously ranked them based on size, maneuverability, mileage, and other relevant features.
The students were then split into two groups. One of the groups was granted 4 minutes to review the specifications of each car seat. The other group was prevented from pondering choices by giving them anagrams as a way to distract them. The distraction group made far better decisions. Unconscious solutions can arise like this when the distraction task is relatively simple, such as resolving an anagram, sweeping the floor, brushing one’s teeth, or anything that does not require deliberate concentration.
We engage the DMN with the right kind of distraction so that it can integrate more information and in more complex ways, from a wide range of brain regions than when the brain is purposefully working on a given problem.
Sleep Your Way to Health & Well-Being
Surprisingly enough, if you want to train your brain for better decision-making and engage your DMN, sleep is one of the best strategies to consider.
Studies show that a significant percentage of the American population, for example, is moderately to severely sleep-deprived. Movies, social media, magazines, and popular culture promote a hustle society that will jeopardize sleep over any other activity.
Many people claim to get away with it for a period of time and brag about sleeping only 5 or 6 hours per night. Science has proven this to be a myth.
Mathew Walker is a sleep scientist, he’s the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, a research center that aims to understand everything about sleep’s impact on us. According to him, we are living a catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic. Sleep loss is associated with Alzheimer's disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and poor mental health. And as amazing as it may sound, sleep deprivation constitutes anything less than 7 hours of sleep… and yes you read that correctly.
No aspect of our biology is left unharmed by sleep deprivation. And those people who claim to be the exception?
“The number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.” Mathew Walker
Getting enough sleep is fundamental if you want to live a healthy, vibrant life. It’s also indispensable if you need to make important decisions.
Sleeping the recommended 8 hours every night should be something we all aspire to achieve. But depending on our goal and on our level of energy, taking naps could also be a smart strategy to adopt.
If you find yourself exhausted in the middle of the afternoon, a 10-minute nap might be all you need to sharpen your thinking. If you're working on a creative project, let’s say you need to come up with an idea for a marketing campaign, you will need at least 90 minutes of sleep.
Exercise: A Thinking Partner
Physical exercise supports thinking, and thinking supports exercise. Movement is one of the ways to strengthen the DMN. In obese people, who suffer from over engagement of the DMN, it normalizes it, in young healthy people it increases connectivity, and aerobic exercise helps prevent the atrophy of brain regions within the DMN.
A 2012 study by psychology professor Angela K. Leung and colleagues, tested 3 groups of people. They all had to take a mental test, but one group walked around in rectangles while taking the test, the other walked around freely, and the last one sat down to take the test. The group that walked around freely performed better than the other two. Research also shows exercise is associated with improvements in fluency, flexibility, and originality of thinking.
A lot of people will go for a run, or a walk to clear their heads, and they’re right. They experience the benefits of it, and intuitively know that a little movement and a good night of sleep will dissipate a lot of the mental fog and clear the way for better thinking.
Vacations: Putting it all Together
So why is taking a vacation particularly important in a time like this and especially before you make any radical move in your life? Because it will give your brain what it needs to do its best thinking and decision-making, otherwise you’ll act out of a depleted brain, and the odds of making a wrong call are higher in that mental state.
When we go on vacation we tend to do the things that are good for our brain. We rest, we enjoy idle time, we sleep enough hours, we might exercise a bit, even if it’s going on daily walks, a hike, or taking a yoga class. We have a little bit of structured time, and a little bit of totally unstructured and unfocused time.
A 2012 study by Jessica de Bloom investigated whether employee health and well-being improves during short vacations (4 to 5 days), and how long this improvement lasts. Eighty workers reported their well-being before, during and after the vacations. The results showed an improvement in health and well-being during the vacation, but the effect faded quite quickly. A closer look revealed that employees reported higher levels of well-being during vacation the more relaxed and psychologically detached from work they felt. These experiences positively affected their health and well-being even after returning home.
What a lot of people report is that it takes them a couple of days to really switch their mind off work and settle into vacation mode. This is why, if you’re feeling exhausted and depleted, you’ll most likely need to take longer time off. But do yourself some good, and before any radical decision, book those vacations you know you rightfully need.
Time spent doing nothing is not wasted, it can very well be some of the most prolific time in terms of your health and well-being. Life is too short to be tired all or even most of the time.