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The Important Thing Missing From Your To-Do List

todolist

I try to keep my to-do list to a manageable, realistic length. I really do. After I get my older son off to school in the morning, I get my younger two kids dressed for the day. We may read a few stories. I may do the breakfast dishes. Some days we’ll go for a run together. There are always a few little things to take care of: phone calls, e-mails, planning. Some days we run errands, other days we meet up with friends. After naptime, we head to the school for pickup. Then it’s homework, dinner, and bedtime. And then I work until it’s time for me to go to bed.

See, not too bad, right? But lately, I’ve noticed that there is one very important thing missing from my daily to-do list: relaxing. I rarely make time to unwind or sit still. My mind is always occupied with one thing or another. It doesn’t get much of a chance to rest. Even when my day is physically manageable, or even easy, my mind is always going double speed trying to stay on top of our schedule, figure out how to manage additional activities, and plan the next week’s meals or the writing I’m going to be doing the next few days.

I’ve noticed that this mental downtime is missing from my day lately because, well, I’m suffering because of it. I’m feeling slow and uninspired. Names and dates and places that are normally easy for me to remember take a second or two too long to recall. And I trust my “autopilot” all too often to get through the day. When was the last time I finished a book? The last time I watched a show without also doing something else?

I know, of course, that I need more rest — and my brain does, too. What I didn’t know, however, is that it doesn’t need to be a huge commitment — like getting to bed an hour earlier every night — to improve my life (and my brain function) dramatically. But it does need to happen more often than I currently allow it. Only taking weekends off just isn’t enough to let my brain work as well as it, and I, would like.

Daily downtime mental breaks from even thinking about work can improve problem solving skills, increase energy, and lead to faster learning and stronger memory. It can make you happier. And that is just naming a few of the benefits. I’m totally sold on it, of course. I need it and want it. But how do I fit this daily mental downtime into my life?

According to Ferris Jabr’s recent piece in Salon.com, 15-minute mental breaks would go a long way to improving mental function. A daily nap would be awesome. And if I could take an additional day off every week or so and not even think about work for several hours a day, my brain — and life in general — would be improved in so many ways.

While Jabr suggests an afternoon siesta, whose 4-year-old is going to let them do that? (Not mine. I tried recently and gave up after he started blowing zerberts on my face.) The next best thing, Jabr says, is a 10-minute nap, which resets your brain without leading to grogginess. Add to that a walk in the park (not quite as easy to do in urban areas like my hometown of Brooklyn, but still manageable) and attempting to meditate for 20 minutes a day, and my brain should quickly be reaping those downtime benefits.

So for my part, I’m taking advantage of the fact that my 15-month-old is still nursing and using that time to read a book for pleasure. I’m also putting my phone away for a couple of hours every afternoon. And, if worse comes to worst, I may let my 4-year-old play on my phone for 10 minutes or so while sneak in a quick power nap.

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