Yet that's exactly what Simon Gottschalk, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, does during his time away from work.
Disconnecting from technology, says Gottschalk, allows him to do the things that really matter, like hanging out with his family, walking in the park, and sometimes, doing absolutely nothing.
Doing nothing, says Gottschalk, has benefits for productivity, health and forming true social connections.
“There's a lot of research that shows when the brain is at rest and is not distracted by so many different sources of stimulation, then new thoughts are possible. The brain starts thinking differently and starts focusing differently on one's environment," he says.
Doing nothing can seem counterproductive in our goal-oriented culture, but doing nothing isn't being lazy, says Gottschalk. In a recent study by the National Institutes of Health, improved memory and ability to learn a new skill were found to result from taking short mental breaks when learning new tasks.
“We're human beings and we need time to recreate and recharge ourselves," says Gottschalk. "It's not wasted time. It's time we really need to function and remain sane."
Some of the most productive people in history relied on down time to spark creativity.
“Einstein was known to stare into space for hours. What appeared from the outside as doing nothing was his mind working in different ways," says Gottschalk. “Because he was staring into space and his mind wasn't constantly distracted, then (he) could approach problems or approach questions completely differently."
Doing nothing can also prep us for better sleep, by reducing the external stressors of the day, says Gottschalk.
Different Approaches. Doing nothing means different things to different people. Meditation is one of the oldest forms of quieting your mind and body. And some things can interfere with our ability to zone out. Here are a few pointers for giving your mind a rest.
- Disconnect from technology. Before we can take a mental break, we need to unplug, Gottschalk says. “Disconnecting keeps us from trying to be involved in so many activities and being distracted all the time," he says. Gottschalk suggests turning off or muting your smartphone whenever possible.
- Let go after work. If you've had a rough day on the job, it's even more critical to decompress. If your boss or coworkers are negative or abusive, relaxing right after work can be the key to a better night's sleep, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Those who could take their minds off the workday through relaxing activities such as yoga, walking or chilling to music, slept better than those who ruminated on workplace incivility.
- Doodle away. Remember that teacher who yelled at you for doodling in class? Well, he should've encouraged it instead. Doodling increases blood flow to the brain's medial prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for regulating our feelings, thoughts and actions, according to preliminary research by Drexel University. Doodling, and to a lesser extent free-drawing and coloring, activates the brain's reward circuit that controls emotion and motivation. These 15- to 20-minute art sessions also offer a confidence boost. In a post-study survey, participants perceived themselves as having good ideas and being able to solve problems.
- Skip the binge watching. While you may be tempted to tune out with your favorite show, marathon viewing isn't exactly doing nothing. A University of Michigan study found that young adults age 18 to 25 who binge-watched shows regularly suffered fatigue, insomnia and poorer sleep quality, even though they reported sleeping seven hours and 37 minutes on average. If you watch one episode, chances are you might keep going unintentionally. The researchers found that binge watching kept subjects mentally alert, which may have contributed to their poor sleep quality.
- Protect your private time. It's important to keep work separate from family time and leisure activities, says Gottschalk. Set boundaries with coworkers, family and friends about your availability. Disconnecting from technology comes into play here, too. “Research suggests, for example, that mere anticipation that you will receive work-related emails after work increases your stress level. And that will increase burnout and increase many physiological consequences of stress," says Gottschalk. His recommendation: Put your smartphone on mute and have an automatic response message that says you'll return the call or email during normal business hours.