Monday 16 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Take time to just stop and do nothing at Christmas'

In our 'always-on' world of constant striving and non-stop news, downtime is more necessary than ever, writes Brendan O'Connor

DOWN TIME: Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney of The Beatles relax in a Paris hotel room in 1964. Photo: Getty
DOWN TIME: Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney of The Beatles relax in a Paris hotel room in 1964. Photo: Getty
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

A PR company sent out some research they had commissioned, saying that the best present a man could get for Christmas is a bit of "me time". Apparently 61pc of men will be seeking to slip away for up to 10 hours during the Christmas holidays. Of the 2,000 men polled, apparently 95pc said they felt no guilt about slipping away, and 85pc said they felt better after a bit of me time.

Which is not surprising. Downtime has become simultaneously a much undervalued, and yet increasingly sought-after, commodity in the 21st Century. We live in an always-on age. Employers have generously given us all devices that allow us access to our emails all the time, and when we're not checking emails, we are scrolling relentlessly through pointless stuff on the internet. It doesn't help that the news never stops. It used to be that to feel informed, you listened to the radio over breakfast, or read a newspaper during your commute. You were pretty much up to speed then for the day, and you might top up with the nine o'clock news later. Now the news never stops. Rolling news channels blare out of TVs everywhere, even in sanctuaries like gyms and their changing rooms. Most people are getting constant news alerts, and then there's a torrent of other random information coming at us through social media, Twitter and even WhatsApp.

This all leads to a situation where we are expected to be relentlessly outwardly focused, always taking stuff in, in a constant state of extroversion. The flipside of this is that the brain has little time to process any of the information being flung at us.

Susan M Cain's book Quiet, a hugely important manifesto for introverts, details how the age of extroversion arose in modern America, spurred by people like Dale Carnegie. It spread out from America and gradually the western world became dominated by a view that a good salesperson, a good public speaker, was the ideal type of human, the best kind of leader. But Cain argued that in embracing that culture, we failed to value, and lost, many of the important skills and characteristics of introverts and of our introverted side. She argued that many great leaders were actually introverts, who thought, even ruminated, before speaking and making decisions. Indeed the era of Silicon Valley saw many introverted leaders thrust uncomfortably into the spotlight.

Most of us probably aren't pure extroverts or introverts but ambiverts, a mixture of both. And you could argue that the key to being a healthy human being is a combination of facing the world, but also taking time to look within. The modern world of work and socialising and relentless activities, allows little time for the latter. An always-on world means we are required to be extrovert all the time. It's not surprising then that many of us crave downtime, and do not get enough of it. And the reality is too that when we do get downtime, it's not really downtime. Because people find it difficult now not to be doing something.

It's not really downtime if you are catching up with social media or the news on your phone. It's not really downtime if you are checking emails. It's not really even downtime if you are improving yourself at the gym. And we are all relentlessly improving ourselves these days, in the gym or otherwise. True downtime is to do something with no purpose whatsoever, with no drive to self-improvement, doing something without seeking a result of some kind. How often do you truly do that? How often does the busyness-addicted world allow it?

Countless studies have now shown that regular downtime is necessary for physical, emotional and mental health, to avoid getting overwhelmed and ultimately burnt out.

Sometimes we just need to stop. Just stop. See how good that feels? Stop striving, stop ticking things off your to do list. Just. Stop. How often do you experience silence for example? How often do you walk somewhere without headphones, not consuming news or music or an audiobook or a podcast? How often do you just walk and enjoy the silence, or the sounds around you? The culture barely allows it any more. There are devices for every state, to keep us distracted at every moment.

The irony, too, is that a raft of neurological and psychological research proves time and again that downtime, mental breaks, even naps, are essential to the productivity we are all so obsessed with. It seems, for example, that human beings have limited supplies of attention. You can only pay attention for so long. You need to replenish your attention by taking a break.

Also, without mental breaks, you eventually stop taking anything in. You get to a point where you have cerebral congestion. There is so much to process and it's coming at you at such a rate, that you just get blocked, you stop processing.

In recent years we have come to understand that the brain is far from inactive during downtime. Brain imaging shows that certain parts of the brain are hugely active during the downtime. You know what's happening? It's consolidating and filing all the data we've been relentlessly taking in. It's creating memories, it's dealing with unresolved conflicts, it's restoring equilibrium in our heads. It is in these moments of downtime, scientists tell us, that insights form, that the hidden part of our brain makes connections, comes up with creative solutions. In downtime we are unconsciously learning from the past, planning for the future, reflecting and analysing. So don't feel guilty about doing nothing in your downtime. It turns out you are.

Many of those who excel in sports or music or writing tend to work or practice for no more than four hours a day. The rest of the time is for physical and mental regeneration and recovery.

So if you do one thing this Christmas, be like the guys in that survey and take some downtime, some time to do nothing, to let your mind drift downstream, to watch a dumb movie, to just stop trying, stop striving, stop improving. Just let your mind process everything and replenish itself. We are all under so much pressure now to be constantly either working, or socialising, or pursuing hobbies, or parenting with intent as if our lives depended on it, that we rarely get some time just to be quiet, to stop. And trust me. Your kids will appreciate it, too. By the time Christmas comes, they too are exhausted from the rounds of school and activities we subject them too. They'll appreciate it if you ease up the pressure for the family to be always doing things over the holiday season. They need to replenish, too.

One of the things I like to do to switch off without intent is watch music documentaries. You can just let them wash over you, and you can take in whatever titbits you want. I'm watching a great series right now called Soundbreaking: Stories from the cutting edge of recorded music. The first one in the series was about producers, the guys who help bands turn their songs into records. There was a great little titbit in it where Beatles producer George Martin talks about how Paul McCartney came in one day with a song, and Paul said to George Martin: "Tell me if you've heard this before".

McCartney had heard the song in his sleep and just woke up with it fully formed in his head, so he assumed it was a song he had heard before somewhere and he had just nicked it. So he sat down and played Yesterday. And it was so perfect that George Martin suggested it didn't need anything else done to it; all they could do to augment it was to put some strings over it, which they did.

In a world where no one gets a good night's sleep any more because we're too busy being busy, it's worth listening to Yesterday, and realising, that's what your brain can do, all on its own, when you let it switch off.

Well… if you're Paul McCartney.

Sunday Independent

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