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How Scheduling Downtime Improves Productivity

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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We all know how important productivity is when it comes to getting things done and achieving our goals, but scheduling downtime is just as vital. Downtime isn’t just leisurely activities like scrolling through social media. It’s using periods of unstructured time to rest and reset the mind by engaging in activities that don’t require focused attention.

But how much downtime is ideal in order to promote productivity? A good rule of thumb is to allow yourself at least 3.5 hours a day.[1] It’s time used to engage in activities that promote rest and relaxation.

The benefits of scheduling downtime are plentiful. Not only will it help reduce stress and fatigue, but it can also lead to improved concentration, creativity, and productivity. Additionally, regular downtime can improve mental health by reducing anxiety and depression.

What is Downtime (and What Doesn’t Qualify as Downtime)

Downtime is defined as periods of unstructured time when you take a break from work or other activities to rest and relax. It’s important to note that downtime doesn’t include leisure activities like playing video games or scrolling through social media.

The key here is to engage in activities that don’t require too much concentration or effort, such as taking a nap, taking a shower, or going for a walk.

On the other hand, activities such as checking emails, taking calls, or watching TV all require focused attention and can be counterproductive when it comes to providing your body and mind with much-needed rest.


Downtime Means Not Having Focused Attention or a Goal in Mind

It can be a break from work or any other activity that requires intense concentration, such as studying. When you’re in a state of downtime, your brain is free to wander and make connections. It’s during this time that new ideas or creative solutions may come to mind.

Research has shown that our brains need regular periods of rest and reflection in order to function optimally.[2] Giving ourselves downtime can lead to increased productivity, more creative problem-solving, and better overall mental health.[3]

At the same time, it’s important to be mindful of how much time you spend in a state of downtime. Too much idle time can lead to boredom or apathy, which can hinder your motivation and productivity. The goal is to find a healthy balance between hard work and relaxation.

Finding ways to incorporate downtime into your day can be beneficial in the long run. Incorporate meditation into your daily ritual or try something as simple as cloud watching. can help you recharge and refocus. It’s all about finding the right way to use your time wisely. With a little bit of downtime, you can unlock your creative potential and make the most out of your day.

Downtime Is Not Leisure Time With a Goal

Downtime allows the mind and body to recover from the constant stimulus of everyday life. It’s important for everyone to take adequate downtime to promote mental well-being and physical health.

People often think that leisure activities are only considered “downtime” if it is goal-oriented or actively enjoyable. But that’s not the case. Any activity that allows your mind and body to relax can count as downtime, even if you don’t find it particularly enjoyable in the moment.


For example, people watching at a park may seem mundane compared to browsing through social media, yet it can be incredibly calming and peaceful. Furthermore, activities such as cleaning the house or doing laundry are often seen as a chore, but when done with mindfulness and intention, it can be an incredibly grounding experience.

Even binge-watching Netflix isn’t considered “true” downtime, as it can be too stimulating and mentally draining. A more effective way to relax is by stepping outside and enjoying nature, like staring up at the clouds or taking a walk in the woods. This means being fully present in the activity, avoiding multitasking, and allowing your thoughts to wander without judgment.

The key to successful downtime is to find activities that are calming and restore your energy without feeling like a chore. Each individual is different, so finding what works best for you takes practice. To reap the most benefits from downtime, it’s important to make sure you’re in an environment that is free of distractions and obligations.

The Science Behind Downtime and Our Brain

Our brain is an incredibly powerful machine, and it’s no surprise that modern science has revealed why taking regular breaks can be so beneficial for our overall well-being. In particular, there are two distinct networks in the brain which have been identified as being responsible for how we interact with the world around us: the Task positive networks (TPN) and the default mode networks (DMN).

The TPN is what enables us to focus on tasks and engage with external stimuli, allowing us to plan ahead, think logically, and stay organized.[4] This network is activated when we are engaged in problem solving or working on a project.

The DMN, on the other hand, is essential for creative and reflective thinking. This network is activated when we are daydreaming, recalling memories, or taking a break from work-related activities. It’s periods of self-directed introspection.[5]


When it comes to how our brains process information, these two networks are in constant competition with each other. If the TPN is overly active for too long, it can lead to fatigue and exhaustion, and our brains may become less receptive to new ideas. The DMN is what helps us step back and process the bigger picture, allowing us to think more creatively and make better decisions.

Downtime gives the DMN a chance to take the lead and recharge our batteries, allowing us to approach tasks with a fresh perspective and renewed energy. This can be incredibly beneficial for those trying to achieve a project-based goal, as it helps us stay focused on the task at hand and avoid being overwhelmed by stress or anxiety.

It’s important to note that downtime doesn’t have to be passive. Taking a break from work to do something we enjoy, like listening to music or going for a walk, can also activate the DMN and allow it time to recharge.

How Downtime Affects Our Conscious and Unconscious Minds

Taking regular breaks or downtime allows us to tap into our unconscious and conscious minds in ways that would be impossible while we are in a state of alertness. By providing the brain with space to relax, reflect, and process information, it helps us stay focused on tasks, think more creatively, form better connections between ideas, and remain open to different perspectives.

This can have huge benefits for our health and wellbeing, especially when it comes to problem-solving or tackling a difficult project, as it gives us the time and space to think more deeply, allowing us to reach solutions that may otherwise remain out of reach.

Research has also found that our brains are constantly active, even during restful activities like sleep.[6] Though we may not be consciously aware of it, our brains are constantly processing information, making connections between concepts, and forming new memories. This allows us to absorb more knowledge and develop skills faster than if we were to just focus on individual tasks without taking breaks in between.


The brain is capable of processing information at about 10 million bits of data every second, though it’s estimated that only a small fraction (2-4%) is being processed consciously.[7] This highlights how important taking regular breaks or downtime can be for allowing our brains to take in and process more information.

Additionally, research has shown that the brain is capable of forming up to 100 trillion neuronal connections and making up to one million synaptic modifications every second.[8][9] This emphasizes how quickly our brains can process information when given the right environment and stimulation.

Downtime is essential for allowing our brains to think more deeply and creatively. By providing the brain with the time and space it needs to rest, process information, and form new connections between concepts, we can achieve tasks in a much more efficient way.

How Does Downtime Relate to Productivity?

Downtime isn’t something that most of us would associate with being productive. However, research has actually found a strong connection between the two: taking regular breaks from work can actually help you get more done in less time and with greater focus.

A study published by Jackie Coleman and John Coleman showed that brief periods of downtime, such as afternoon naps, can help restore focus and energy.[10]Furthermore, it found that regular breaks from work can help reduce the risk of burnout and improve overall productivity.

It seems counterintuitive, but allowing yourself moments of rest could be the key to boosting your productivity. As Andrew Smart writes in his book The Art and Science of Doing Nothing,


“Being idle is one of the most important activities in life.”

This idea of taking regular breaks has been espoused by numerous famous philosophers over the years, such as Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Kant, who all found value in taking time to simply wander aimlessly.

It’s important to note, however, that downtime isn’t an excuse for unproductive behavior; it should be used strategically to give your mind and body a break from the task at hand.

When we take short breaks throughout the day, it shows that it may help our brains to learn new skills. One research showed that the brain strengthened memories by rapidly and repeatedly replaying an activitiy during rest.[11]. This could mean taking a short walk around the block or getting a cup of coffee, are simple and easy ways to recharge and refocus.

Benefits of Downtime

Downtime is essential for our brains because it helps us to relax and recharge. By allowing the Default Mode Network (DMN) to take the lead, it gives us a chance to take a break from work-related activities, think more deeply and creatively, and reach solutions that may otherwise remain out of reach.

Here are some benefits of taking regular breaks or downtime:

Boosted Productivity

As discussed in the previous section on how downtime improves productivity, taking regular breaks from our work helps us to come back more focused and motivated, allowing us to complete tasks faster than if we had stayed in the same state of mind for hours on end.

Help with Chronic Stress

Taking regular breaks and downtime can help reduce stress levels, allowing us to approach tasks with a fresh perspective and renewed energy.

Prevent Burnout

Allowing the brain to rest and recharge can help prevent burnout from happening, as it allows us to stay focused on the task at hand and avoid feeling overwhelmed by stress or anxiety.

Increased Creativity

In our busy lives, it’s easy for us to get into a routine of doing things the same way. By taking some time out, we can break this pattern and allow ourselves to explore new ideas and ways of thinking outside of our comfort zone.

Increased Ability to Solve Problems

Downtime allows our brain to switch from its conscious, analytical mode to its subconscious, more creative state. The Default Mode Network (DMN) is responsible for problem-solving and higher-order thinking.

Lessen Decision Fatigue

An overworked brain can lead us to be less efficient at making decisions. Taking breaks from our work allows us to reset our decision-making abilities so that we can come back refreshed and able to make decisions more easily.

How to Create More Downtime

Creating more downtime can be hard, especially in this day and age. We’re all so busy with our daily lives that it feels like there’s no time to relax. But creating more downtime doesn’t have to be as difficult as you think.

Here are some tips for how to create more downtime:

1. Schedule Your Downtime

Setting aside specific times for downtime can help you take a break from your daily routine and make sure that you have time to relax. Imagine a typical day. Surely there are some moments where you could use a break and relax, right?

Schedule those moments as ‘downtime’ in your calendar to make sure that you don’t miss out on them.

For example, if you’re a morning person, why not have some downtime after lunch? Or if you’re a night owl, make time in your evening schedule to wind down and relax.


It’s recommended to usually start winding down 1-2 hours before bed.

2. Create Rituals and Routines

Rituals and routines are different but they can both be beneficial when it comes to creating more downtime. Rituals generally refer to special activities that you do at specific times, like reading a book before bed or going for a walk after lunch.

Routines, on the other hand, are more general activities that you repeat every day like making your bed in the morning or brushing your teeth before going to bed.

Having both rituals and routines can help you create more downtime by giving you moments throughout the day where you can pause, reflect, and relax.

3. Take in Afternoon Naps

Naps are a great way to recharge and regenerate during the day. Taking a 20-30 minute nap can help you feel more refreshed and give you some much needed downtime.

4. Take Walks

Taking regular walks can be a great way to clear your head, get some fresh air, and have some moments of relaxation away from your work or home. A brisk walk in the park or a leisurely stroll around the block can do wonders for your mental health and help you create more downtime.

5. People Watch Instead of Fiddling on Your Phone

It’s easy to get distracted by your phone when you’re waiting in line at the bank or for a friend, or commuting. Instead, why not take that moment to people watch?

Observing the people around you and watching how they interact with each other can be an interesting and relaxing way to spend some downtime.


Botton Line

Taking regular breaks and creating more downtime can be an effective way to improve productivity. Downtime is not an excuse for unproductive behavior, but instead should be used strategically to give your mind and body a break from the task at hand.

The science behind downtime suggests that taking short breaks throughout the day can help reset your mind and recharge, allowing you to be more productive when it’s time to get back to work.

To create more downtime, you should create a schedule for yourself, establish rituals and routines, take afternoon naps, take walks and use moments of waiting as people watch for opportunities.By using these tips, you can ensure that your downtime is used effectively; allowing you to be more productive in the long run.


Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

How Scheduling Downtime Improves Productivity

Downtime is defined as periods of unstructured time when you take a break from work or other activities to rest and relax.

Downtime means not having focused attention or a goal in mind.

Downtime Is not leisure time with a goal.

When we take short breaks throughout the day, it shows that it may help to strengthen memories by rapidly and repeatedly replaying an activitiy during rest.

Besides boosting productivity, benefits of downtime include preventing burnout, helping with chronic stress, increasing creativity and lessening decision fatigue.

You can create more downtime by scheduling it, creating rituals and routines, taking in afternoon naps, taking walks, and people watching while waiting in a line or commuting.

Featured photo credit: naipo.de via unsplash.com


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