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The Brain Needs Rest – The limits of cognitive work and how to rest the brain

I am a strong believer that most people could get more done in a 6 hour work day than an 8 hour work day. Many studies are actually showing that most people actually only have three to five hours of good hard focused work in them per day. It isn’t about laziness or not being organized. It is just about capacity. It is one thing to train your body to do 8+ hours of manual labor, but it is another thing to think you will get 8 intense hours of cognitive work out of your brain.

Many recent studies have shown that the mind has about three to five good strong hours, and most of us who work these cerebral jobs have experienced this as truth. I cannot count the number of people who have told me they get more done working three hours on a day they shouldn’t be in the office, than 9 hours in a normal work day. That isn’t primarily because they have no distractions. It is because their brain stays fully engaged, because it isn’t trying to store up energy for the long run.

I have really been struggling with mental exhaustion recently. I’ve been full of energy and reasonably sharp while working, but when the work day is done, I can barely see straight from pure mental exhaustion.

This nearly daily experience of end of day mental fuzz, combined with several conversations with different widows about having regrets or not having regrets about the time you spent with your spouse while they were alive, and my love of books about making the most of your day/evening/weekend/week, have caused me to start to think a little more purposefully about cognitive capacity, and how to rest, renew and refresh the brain.

The answer that just keeps coming up is the need for “empty space” or time to let your mind wander. The Art of Manliness did a great podcast on this recently called In Praise of Wasting Time.h

This weekend, we took a trip to “Asheville.” I say Asheville in quotations, because we really went to Hendersonville and I sat on my sister’s couch and watched the kids play. We talked. We ate. We stared at the kids and let them be as interesting or as uninteresting as toddlers can be.

I’m not as good at just sitting there and being when I am home. At home, I’m the only adult, so I’m way more likely to either be actively engaged with Zoya or fully engrossed in a show, a podcast, or an audiobook. Distraction has been my constant battle these past few months and getting rid of the addicting mentally engrossing games has just led to my watching more shows.

If I want to be productive at my job and still have something other than fuzzy hours left for the rest of my life, I need to be more deliberate about making space for activities that allow my mind to wander and my brain to rest. Here are a few things I’m planning:

  1. Driving time without the radio or a book
  2. Reading more physical books and less audiobooks (Your mind can wander when reading a physical book, but you have to stay focused or you really loose your place with an audiobook.)
  3. Running, walking, working out, without audiobooks.
  4. Bathing without a show.
  5. Gardening without a podcast.
  6. Sitting with nothing but a notebook within in my reach
  7. Meditation
  8. Attempting to sleep without an audiobook
  9. People watching (It is just interesting enough to give your brain great room to wander)
  10. Work free meals
  11. Weekends or days where I just sit with other adults and watch the kids play

I don’t want to give all my good hours to my job and have nothing left for my family and the rest of my life. I’m blessed to have a job that stirs my energy and passion, but I don’t want my daughter to just get the dregs.

As a widow and a solo parent, I don’t get the down time many other people get. I know my therapist would want me to check myself and admit that yes, that makes it that much harder. But I am not willing to let that be the final answer. I know God will provide the strength and resources for the life he has given me. I just may have to be a little better steward of those resources. The same is true for you, regardless of your circumstances. God will provide what you need. You may just have to be a little more careful about how you use the time and energy you are given.

I’d love some more ideas. What do you do to rest your brain and prevent brain fuzz?

3 comments on “The Brain Needs Rest – The limits of cognitive work and how to rest the brain

  1. rogerholmack

    I forced myself to take little breaks though out the day. Go talk to someone for a while, take a short walk outside, go to bathroom and wash my hands off and maybe pick up the phone and call someone. I’m retired now and still make myself take breaks. Hugs.


    • Thanks. All good ideas. Increasingly, I feel like breaks in the work place and what would have been water cooler conversations are discouraged. Long term, I think it is highly unsustainable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • rogerholmack

        I think socializing is important at work. Good supervisors realize this. You can lift up your coworkers when they are struggling and then they can return the favor when you are. When I told my secretary about Amanda passing, she cried along with me. We all need help at times.


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