Life is seemingly relentless. From the moment we open our eyes until the time when we crawl, exhausted and defeated, back to the refuge that is our duvet cocoon for a brief period of respite from the craziness of modern life, the pressure is on. To be better. A better spouse, parent, child, colleague, friend, neighbour. To be more productive – to be ahead of the rest it is apparently essential to be fully functioning before the crack of dawn, write the definitive work on time management strategy and keep every plate impeccably spinning with unwavering poise and serenity, all the while living the lifestyle of a celebrity health guru. Get my five a day? Of course! Hit the government target for moderate physical activity every week? Naturally. Ever indulge in just one glass too many of a favourite tipple at the end of a particularly frantic shift on the treadmill of life? Moi?? Perfect home, perfect kids, perfect marriage, perfect job – always. Every waking second devoted to the holy grail of modern society – ‘success’, in all its various forms. Needing a triple espresso on the hour, every hour, every day as a consequence of not having slept for more than four hours a night for the last decade in order to achieve success is not regarded as an affliction as it would have been in days gone by; in stark contrast, it is the ultimate badge of honour.
This morning was a typical Saturday morning. Years of having young children around have hardwired my brain to wake early, regardless of any need for it at weekends, so just before 6am I’m up. Up and ready for whatever the day wants to throw at me, which involves some work from home, getting one of the kids off to his holiday with his mates, the usual raft of general chores, and yes, some fun stuff thrown in later. And although it promises to be a day of joy, it’s going to be busy. Very busy.
So, what to do first? I have at least an hour before anyone expects anything of me. My husband and more children than I remember giving birth to are strewn around the house in various states of slumber and all is at peace. This is prime time. Normally I would start chipping away at my physical activity quota for the day, but today is my rest day. My kitchen is still in a state of indefensible carnage from the consequences of hosting other peoples’ kids for the night, and my laundry basket and email inbox look no better, so best get cracking, but where?
Then the epiphany hits. It’s the weekend. It’s the weekend and the sun is bestowing just the right amount of pleasant warmth on our garden early in the morning, which is rare in the UK and almost unheard of in rainy Wales. At some deep level in my subconscious, I know the decision is already made. Without realising it, I make my way to a particular corner of my kitchen, and before I know it I have created a perfect cup of coffee. Not the ‘too busy to fuss’ instant type, but the delicious, indulgent filter coffee reserved for truly special occasions. And I’m heading to the garden. Not the sink, laundry basket or laptop, the garden. And there I sit, and just ‘be’. Just me, the home that is my castle, the sunshine, my brew and my rambling, unstructured thoughts. And I love it. But what a waste of precious time.
Or was it? It seems not.
Evidence suggests that when we let our minds wander, part of our brains referred to as the ‘default mode network’ becomes active, and even more active if we do this while also engaging in a passive activity requiring little concentration. The default mode network consists of a number of different sites within our brain, all interconnected and communicating, and is our friend; this is part of the brain which relives past experiences, both good and bad, and allows us to reflect on what went well, what we could have done better, and how we can be more prepared for the next such occasion. It helps us to file memories away appropriately, and to have those ‘eureka’ moments when the solution to that previously impossible situation becomes overwhelmingly obvious and easy.
In the film Men in Black 3, at the moment that Agent J made the astute observation that the most destructive force in the universe was ‘sugar’, the nutrition community celebrated; even Hollywood was getting, and broadcasting, the message about the dangers of this ubiquitous pure, white and deadly substance. However, it may be that they made an equally significant observation later on in the ensuing drama; on the advice of his partner, and against his better judgement, J is forced to take some time out, eat some pie, and as a result he solves the clue that leads to him saving the world. Slowing down to get perspective gives him clarity.
The default mode network helps us plan for the future, increases our understanding of people around us, improves our reasoning and allows us to critically evaluate the narrative in the background of our society. Which all sounds extremely productive, and describes many of the characteristics associated with ‘successful’ people. And has been shown to be dysfunctional in some brain disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and autism, among others. From this perspective, it would seem that my leisurely morning coffee was perhaps the singularly most beneficial part of my day in terms of achieving my goals.
‘Down time’ is not a bad thing. It is not laziness, and it is not time wasted. Those moments can be when our brain does some of its most important work, enabling us to better understand the world around us and secure our future. The never-ending ‘to-do’ list gets efficiently prioritised, and possibly shortened, and life gets back in perspective.
Another cuppa? Rude not to…………..