Ah, the inevitable afternoon slump. Our brains shut down and our eyes get heavy — not even a fourth cup of that hyper-caffeinated single-origin can help. Human physiology is, alas, not suited to the nine-to-five. Our alertness ebbs and flows according to the body’s circadian rhythms and sometimes those rhythms deviate from the drumbeat of capitalism. Now, there’s a growing body of evidence that says we should listen to our bodies and actually allow ourselves to idle — it may ultimately make you perform better.
Scientists used to think that our brains didn’t do much when they were idling. But in the ‘90s, researchers discovered that the brain demanded 20 percent of the body’s energy regardless of whether it was engaged or idle. Turns out that when it’s at rest — walking, lying down, daydreaming — the brain in engaged in the mysterious “default mode network”, which we’re only now starting to explore. Scientists predict that while “resting,” the brain is performing crucial activities, such as strengthening connections between areas that often work together, priming it for future sensory input, or even consolidating memories. Like an aging engine, it’s a lot easier to rev when you let it idle for a bit.
Take a Nap
Afternoon shuteye isn’t just for kids: More and more workplaces and universities are installing “nap rooms” and scheduling in nap time during the work day — most often during the aforementioned afternoon slump. Even a nap as short as 15 minutes can improve memory better than caffeine can while providing some alertness and creativity value added. Nap lengths vary from person to person, but 10-20 minutes seem to be enough for most people. Be wary of “sleep inertia,” though: sleep too long (by this study’s count, that’s 30 minutes) and it can take up to an hour to get back to peak performance levels.
Last week in New York, a mass group meditation known as “The Big Sleep” was held in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield, which holds up to 5,000 people. The event was organized by Jesse Israel “for city people who want to take a break and re-charge.” Studies have shown that meditation engages the same parts of the brain as the default mode network, which may provide clues on why meditation leaves people feeling rested. Other research has shown that mindfulness meditation practices can lead to increased attention and enhanced memory, even by meditating for just 20 minutes a day.
The Four-Day Schedule
There are an increasing number of companies realizing the benefits of the four-day, 32-hour workweek, where employees get to take Friday off instead of simply being at the office pretending to work. Though it requires employees really getting down to business during the work week, it’s meant to maximize personal time — idle time — outside of the office, which is necessary to restore energy and creative potential. Of course, most bosses will take some convincing: Don’t forget to casually mention that even Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs has implemented a no-working-past-midnight rule for its summer interns in an attempt to reduce stress (and deaths).
Take a Walk
Sometimes you have to cut stress off right at the source: leave the office environment and take a walk. And don’t forget to leave behind your phone — the point is to disengage your brain from activity and to let the default mode network kick in. Earlier this year, one study reported that employees that participated in lunchtime walks were more enthusiastic, more relaxed, and less nervous at work after walking three times a week for ten weeks. In addition to the mental health benefits, of course, there’s the added bonus of working up a sweat, which has long been known to reduce blood pressure and stress levels.