Boost Productivity by 'Resting' Your Brain

A mental time-out can increase your productivity—and brain size. Here's the three best ways to quickly rest your brain.
June 07, 2012

Neuroscientific research is beginning to shed light on the idea that to be more productive and creative, we need to make break-taking a regular practice. In his recent bestselling book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer writes:

“While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged.”

The challenge, though, is that we’re generally reticent to take those breaks, especially when it comes to our work and business. But many of us might not know an effective brain-rest technique aside from the obvious (take deep breaths, close your eyes) and the time-consuming (who has time to meditate for hours or take yoga three days a week?). So here are three targeted, quick and easy ways to rest your brain and maximize productivity.

Quick Meditation

More and more people are turning to meditation in the workplace. According to Bill George, a Harvard leadership professor and bestselling author, meditation has been an integral part of his career. Google in 2007 initiated a mindfulness and meditation course at Google University, encouraging employees to use the practice to increase self-awareness, focus and attention. New research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging suggests that people who meditate show more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, show stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy. In other words, meditation might make your brain bigger, faster and younger.

If you commute via public transportation (or even if you're a passenger in a car pool) use the time to close your eyes for 10 minutes. If you drive, leave a little early, park and spend 10 minutes in the car. Choose a very specific image, such as a waterfall, beach, tree, etc. and try to focus on it alone. If other thoughts get in the way, gently push them aside. Do this once or twice per day. The goal is not to sleep, but rather to be in a relaxed state, letting your mind focus and relax.


The late physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman, who discovered rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and correlated it with dreaming and brain activity, showed that we move through five stages of light-to-deep sleep in recurring 90-minute periods. These are “ultradian” cycles, and they have a parallel in our waking life: When we’re awake, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes. After 90 minutes, our brains begin to shut down. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly or seeing the big picture. Our bodies send us signals: restlessness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. We either ignore those signals because we have a lot to do or override them with various energy supplements.

Download a "break-reminder" utility, such as Scirocco or Healthy Hints and set it to remind you to take a break every 90 minutes. When it goes off, get up and take a stretch, walk a lap around the office or building and grab a glass of water. Five minutes later you're back to work.

Daydream Walks

Jonathan Schooler, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, pioneered the study of daydreaming and mind wandering. He’s shown that people who daydream score higher on creativity tests. He takes a dedicated daydreaming walk every day.

Start by taking 20 minutes, two days a week during your lunch break to take a stroll and daydream. Think about anything you want besides work—a beach vacation, building your dream house, playing shortstop for the Yankees, whatever. Ramp it up to three or four days a week. You can still eat at your desk if you need to.

Which of these methods might work best for you?