When you're burnt out at the end of a long day or a long week, what do you usually do to kick back, relax and recharge your brain? Whether your answer is a Netflix binge, a messenger chat with a friend, or some idle internet browsing, the go-to way unwind for a great many people these days involves sitting in front of screens.
Low effort and entertaining, enjoying your gadgets might seem like an ideal way to coax your body and mind to relax, but as Pedram Shojai, author of The Art of Stopping Time, points out in the video above, there's a small problem with this super common approach to down time -- science shows screens actually wind you up rather than chill you out.
"That light is triggering your pineal brain to stay awake. That information, whether you like it or not, is triggering your brain to keep working," he notes. Other researchers have found the same. So what should you do instead if you have some time to kill in the evening and really want to help your brain switch off and recharge? Just close your eyes and breath, suggests Shojai, but there are other options too.
1. Practice yoga.
Science shows that 20 minutes of gentle yoga outperforms other types of exercise when it comes to recharging tired brains. "Following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout," commented the leader of one recent study.
2. Get in the flow with a hobby.
If simply sitting around breathing as per Shojai's suggestion doesn't appeal to you, don't worry. There are many more ways to practice mindfulness and center yourself than you probably realize. Getting lost in the flow of your favorite hobby is one of them.
"I have a personal theory that almost everyone secretly meditates, whether they realize it or not," the Guardian's Oliver Burkeman has argued. "Scratch the surface and you'll find that almost everyone pursues some activity demanding absolute presence of mind: if not mountain climbing or sailing or bike racing (where a lapse of attention might mean death), then photography or singing or recreational cookery (where a lapse of attention means you'll screw things up)." As an added bonus, hobbies don't just absorb our attention and refresh our brains, they also help us perform better at work too.
3. Step into nature
Or how about just going for a stroll in the great outdoors? A mountain of research shows that spending time in nature has profound, positive effects, helping us reduce stress and anxiety and increase creativity and empathy.
4. Experience awe.
If you're too tired even for a short walk, then consider simply staring up at the stars. Doing anything that fills you with awe (be it contemplating great art, wondering at natural beauty, or prayer) has been shown to be a powerful stress buster. The feeling of your own smallness in comparison to the grandness of the universe pulls you out of your worries and puts your anxieties in perspective.
Absorbing information through screens increases the chatter in your brain. Dumping your thoughts onto paper decreases it. That's why I ton of research suggests that expressive writing -- i.e. just getting your thoughts down in writing without concern for style, like in a journal -- is a powerful way to clear your mind, reduce anxiety, and sleep better.
Or just be more active
Wait, why on earth would you want to schedule something relatively taxing like volunteering or engaging in an energy-burning pastime if your goal is to relax? Because, as iDone founder Walter Chen points out, "watching TV after a stressful day at work doesn't relax or rejuvenate you. It's worse, according to a recent study. Watching TV after a stressful day leads to feelings of guilt and failure. It doesn't give you the downtime you need to prepare for the next day, nor does it keep you in a neutral state--it actually depletes you."
Paradoxically, packing more (meaningful) activity into your off hours actually tends to leave you more energized than being slothful, a host of experts claim. Perhaps the problem then isn't what you do with your downtime as much as it is that you have too much downtime in the first place. (PS- Sorry, but science says that if you're anything like the average American, you're really not as busy as you think you are.)