Your brain must disconnect from the information feed to thrive

View from the LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Credit: Image credit: Christina Tynan-Wood

Sometimes you have to do absolutely nothing In order to think and work intelligently in the information age.

I remember a time when there was a clear line between work and leisure. Back in those days of yore, people showed for work at 9 a.m. (okay, realistically – I was a magazine editor – 10 a.m.) and started the day. We didn't check email over breakfast at home or on the way to work. We started work when we got there. We worked -- often very long hours -- and went home. But we did not answer work calls at 10 p.m. We did not file stories in the wee hours. No one expected anyone – except in an actual emergency (not a time-management failure) – to answer a work text, email, or instant message at midnight on a Friday. Really. I’m telling the truth. This 24/7 always-on work stuff is all pretty new.

That has completely changed. I answer emails – not even from a boss or colleague – at midnight if it suits my schedule. And I often get an instant reply and find myself getting work done in moments I once spent doing nothing much. It’s great, right? We are all so productive. No time is wasted. It’s flexible, too. It allows me to take time off in what was once the sacred middle of the workday time and shop – or whatever -- when the stores are empty. Most of the time, I have no problem with it. I love my work. And I like the freedom. As long as I am always available, which my smart phone allows, I can be anywhere and still working.

But I am also a strong believer in intentional disconnecting. I make a living in an information age. Ideas are my bread and butter. And no good ideas come from a stressed brain. In fact, according to this article in Psychology Today, the constant stream of messages and information coming at me over my smart phone causes a state of constant stress. “Chronic stress is perceived by our bodies as a danger, triggering the famous ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ … Messages travel through our brain by first passing through the thalamus, … [which] figures out where to route the sensory information as it is received. If the information is perceived as unfamiliar or threatening, the brain signals … the amygdala to act. The amygdala is like a little fire alarm ... Your logical brain takes a back seat to the reactions triggered by the amygdala.”

But turning off stress isn’t the only reason to intentionally disconnect. The human brain is a complicated beast. And if you want it to think creatively, you have to get out of its way.

There is a great scene in Mad Men when Roger Sterling walks into Don Draper’s office and finds him doing absolutely nothing. He’s been doing nothing for a long time. But they both understand that this is how he works. And Sterling says something like, “It’s hard to remember how much you get done when you’re doing nothing.”

Andrew Smart has written an entire book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, proving through science that our brains need to be idle – quite often actually – in order to function well. “It was while lazing in bed,” Smart writes. “That Descartes, habitually a late riser, conceived of the “X” and “Y” axes that comprise the coordinate grid.” And Smart goes on to explain there is a strong scientific explanation for why this – and many of the greatest ideas in history -- “may not be the result of arduous, persistent, labor.” Ideas come much more often as “sudden flashes of insight … during what Rilke eloquently describes as the ‘last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during our idle days.”

I don’t need to explain – or understand – the neuroscience of why my brain needs to do nothing sometimes. I know it’s so. I don’t need a two-week vacation. I don’t have to rearrange my life for weeks and book flights. But I do need -- every once in a while -- to tell everyone I work with that I’m going offline and do just that – just for a couple of days – where there is no signal.

It doesn’t hurt at all that these places are often very beautiful. Above is a photograph I took yesterday from a peak above LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The occasional text message does get through up there. But you have to find just the right spot and stand around in the cold looking for it. It just isn’t worth it. So it’s pretty easy to look at that view instead of the 355 emails that arrived while hiking up there.

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