Science behind downtime and creativity
Lately, I’ve been working pretty long hours.
Most weeks, I spend my days working from home — thinking, writing, and trying to remember to unmute my Zoom mic before I start talking. By the end of the day, when I finally close my laptop, my brain is fried. Most nights I’m so zonked it’s all I can do to open Instagram and scroll through my feed until time becomes a blur, wanting to stop but unable to tear myself away from the comforting narcotic glow of novelty and stimulation.
When I finally snap out of it, I usually have to play a Conan clip on YouTube just to entertain myself long enough to get up and brush my teeth. I collapse into bed and binge-watch some Netflix, then put on a podcast to lull myself to sleep.
It’s a stressful, Sisyphean cycle, but at least I’m making space each night to give myself the downtime I need.
Or so I thought—until I read a journal article about how to allocate your time to maximize productivity, creativity, and mental well-being. For the brain to thrive, you can’t spend all your time working. Human beings aren’t robots, and overwork leads to burnout, disengagement, and resignations.
That much I already knew. But then I read something that caught me by surprise: The brain also requires “downtime”—unstructured time with no goal in mind and no targeted focus of attention.
And that’s when I realized I’d been doing downtime wrong.
Prime time isn’t downtime
All these years, I thought downtime just meant zoning out—giving myself permission to stare at the TV and forget about work. But actually, true downtime means no goal and no focused attention.
Watching a show on Netflix, then, isn’t downtime because it requires focused attention. If anything, it’s closer to work than it is to downtime. Same goes for social media apps. Even going to the gym doesn’t qualify as downtime. When you run sprints or lift weights, you’re working toward a goal—and concentrating on what you’re doing. And that means it’s not downtime.
Even mindfulness meditation doesn’t qualify, since it too requires focused attention. Meditation practices like mindfulness of the breath require you to place your focus on the present moment, training yourself to notice when your mind wanders.
I realized the only actual downtime I had was in the shower. And sure enough, bathtime has always been my best time for making connections, having creative insights, and coming up with story ideas.
The imagination network
Studies show that thinking relies on the coordination of two different brain networks, each with its own way of processing information.
The first is the task-positive network, also known as the central executive network. This is the goal-oriented part of your brain. It activates when you’re paying attention: making a decision, thinking through the solution to a problem, or using your working memory to make sense of new information.
The other is the default mode network, also known as the imagination network. This is the brain’s resting-state circuitry—the regions that come online when you’re not paying attention to anything in particular. This is what activates during downtime.
As it turns out, the imagination network is central to innovation and creativity. Studies show that creativity depends on the interaction of multiple cognitive processes, some of which are unconscious and occur only when we’re not focusing on a task.
When you’re consciously focusing on a problem, the mind naturally tunes out information that doesn’t seem relevant. But sometimes the best insights require a creative leap. That’s why the best way to solve a complex problem isn’t by brute force. A better approach is to take some downtime and give the imagination network a chance to work its magic: consolidating new knowledge, making new connections, and imagining new possibilities.
That’s why Archimedes’ Eureka moment came to him when he was sitting in the bath, and why Newton formulated the law of gravity when he saw an apple fall in an orchard. The epiphanies that seem to bubble up from nowhere when your mind is wandering are actually products of the imagination network.
Not a moment to waste
As I read more about the science of downtime, I realized I’d been laboring under a second misconception: the belief that idle time is wasted time.
I’ve always had an aversion to wasting time. I don’t like the idea of doing nothing.
My non-work time is so limited, I want to make the most of every minute. That’s why I watch the MasterClass on hostage negotiation while I brush my teeth.
And if I really have to do my dishes, I figure, I may as well make that time productive. So I put on an audiobook or a podcast, thinking I’m improving myself.
But even if my only goal were efficiency, it would still be counterproductive to try to keep my mind engaged every second. To borrow a phrase dubiously attributed to Albert Einstein: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”
So how do you get more downtime? Spend more time doing nothing. Do the dishes without a podcast in the background. Go for a walk in the woods but leave your fitness tracker at home. When you fold your laundry, let the mind-numbingness of the task actually numb your mind instead of trying to escape it.
And when a free moment arises unexpectedly—when the airplane wifi stops working, or when your phone dies at the coffee shop—resist the temptation to use it efficiently. Instead, claim those moments for downtime, taking advantage of the opportunity to do nothing at all.
Making more time for downtime will create the conditions for those thunderbolt insights to strike—and help you stay sane, creative, and productive over the long term.