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Why Chronic Busyness Is Bad for Your Brain

A bunch of neuroscientists and a new book all argue that you really, really need to quit being busy all the time.
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The backlash against busyness continues.

Even a casual poke around the Internet or a quick chat around the average office water cooler will confirm Americans’ obsession with squeezing more productivity into each hour. According to a recent New York Times Magazine article, we even view sleep as a way to be more productive.

"We want to sleep more now not because we value sleep more on its own terms, but because we are so fixated on productivity," Eve Fairbanks writes. (Her South African boyfriend offers a great comment on the phenomenon: "You Americans don’t know how to rest. You rest only to work better.")

He’s not the only one to notice and express dismay. A recent Scientific American article took the scientific approach to pushing back against our always-on culture with an article titled “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.” The bottom line of the piece: “Many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life."

The Value of Switching on the Autopilot

And now there’s even a whole book celebrating idleness and trying to talk workaholic Americans into taking it easy a bit more. It’s written by Andrew Smart and called Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. "Being idle is one of the most important activities in life," he argues.

Why? There is wisdom that can’t be accessed by conscious control. To get at it, paradoxically, you have to stop trying so hard. "Our brain, much like an airplane, has an autopilot, which we enter when resting and relinquishing manual control. The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you," Smart writes. "Just as pilots become dangerously fatigued while flying airplanes manually, all of us need to take a break and let our autopilots fly our planes more of the time."

Of course, one of the reasons that we avoid switching on the autopilot and hanging out with our unconscious is the fact that what we find there can be terrifying. "What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self; and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason," Smart writes. Consider: Would you rather go your whole life without coming face to face with who you really are and what you really want?

Curious to learn more about the book? Farnam Street offers a longish excerpt explaining just how we got so obsessed with productivity in the first place.

Struggling to Loaf?

It’s one thing to agree that it’s a good idea, as Walt Whitman put it, to "loaf and invite my soul," but for the seriously Type A, actually accomplishing this seemingly simple task can be a challenge. If you’re among those who find switching off all that list making and accomplishing a challenge, blog Dumb Little Man offers five suggestions on how you can persuade your busy brain to take a breather.

Do you agree that many of us are just too busy these days?





IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: Apr 15, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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