Stop Focusing: Your Brain Needs a Break

Focus and the resulting productivity are the holy grails of everyone’s workday. Being focused is something we all strive towards and there is no doubt of the benefits one gains when they’re able to focus. You get more done, faster and with less mental effort. Being able to focus for extended periods of time can save you a lot of time and mental energy. After all, any distraction, whether it’s Facebook, an incoming mail or thoughts of what you’re having for dinner, are minutes or hours of lost productivity. Even if it’s just a few minutes here and there, that time adds up. And the time cost doesn’t include the mental energy required to come back to the task, figure out where you were, and get back into flow. Do that a few times and your brain will have wasted quite a bit of energy it could have spent on the task at hand.

So focus is great. Focus is the golden cup we should all be reaching for, right? Well, yes and no. It turns out too much focus is also a bad thing.Your brain, like the rest of you, needs a break from hard work.

An exhausted brain not focusing, but instead paying attention on a number of different activities. Such as social media, email and other things that takes attention away. Focus is the golden cup we should all be reaching for, right?

Excessive focus can exhaust the focus circuits of your brain.Your exhausted brain will naturally have less energy and less self-control. This lack of self-control can make you more impulsive and less helpful. In your work environment that means you’re not making well-thought out decisions and are less likely to collaborate with your colleagues. Just the reputation you want, right?

So what do you do? Do you sacrifice your hard-won ability to focus? Or do you focus anyway and just hope you don’t exhaust your brain by doing so?

For optimal brain function, what you need to do is switch between focused and unfocused periods. Alternating will allow you to become more resilient, more creative, and to make better decisions.
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When you’re intentionally unfocused (come back from Instagram now please), what you’re doing is activating the brain circuit known as “default mode network”, abbreviated as DMN. When you’re at rest, this circuit uses up 20% of the body’s energy (which is impressive since your brain is only 2% of your body weight.) Why so much energy? Because while you’re resting, the DMN isn’t.

The DMN is hard at work under the brain’s conscious radar activating old memories, hopping through the past, present and future and combining different ideas. Using this new or previously uncombined information, you’re able to imagine creative solutions, tune into other people’s thinking and predict the future, which leads to better decision making. Think of all the times a possible solution just “came to you” after puzzling over the problem for hours and then walking away. That was thanks to the efforts of the DMN.

There are several ways to build productive unfocused time for your DMN to be activated into your daily life.

Take a nap

Don’t do this at work unless you’re a freelancer working from home or you have an incredibly understanding boss. When your brain is tired, your creativity and clarity are negatively impacted. To be more creative, go for a full 90 minute nap. If you’re just looking for a little clarity, a 10 minute power nap is your best bet.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

That’s right. Pretend to be someone else and see how they would approach the problem or task you’re facing. Someone like JK Rowling would approach a problem very differently than someone like Marie Curie would. Try on various hats and see if thinking like someone wildly creative will bring you different solutions than being your normal self.

Carve out some time for Positive Constructive Daydreaming (PCD)

PCD is not accidental daydreaming nor the guilt-ridden and stressful rehashing of worries. It’s the relaxed mind-wanderings you have while engaging in a low-key activity like knitting or coloring or gardening. The very reason these activities, especially knitting and coloring, have grown in popularity over the last few years is because they are a gateway to PCD.

PCD is when you spend time engaging internally- exploring who you are through what you enjoy, casually connecting ideas and digging deep into your forgotten memories to establish your sense of identity. After some time engaged in PCD, your sense of self is stronger and your mind feels relaxed and refreshed.

Constructive unfocused time is just as important as your focused work, and will actually improve the quality of work you do when you’re focusing. So get your work done but also be sure to take a break and let your brain play on a regular basis. Your team will thank you.


Amna is a writer and content strategist. As the Head of Content at Pinstriped, she’s responsible for everything with words you see on this website. If you find any mistakes, please let her know on Twitter or Instagram.