Blocking out your time is a good way to pace yourself and keep your productivity up through the day (have a look at our article on Time Blocking). But real life is more fluid than that and no estimates are exactly accurate, so if you're anything like me you'll find yourself with little pockets of time here and there where you can't really start anything new. So what do you do with them?
Things we do to relax that don't relax us
We're all guilty of these. Those little 'check-out' activities that we do because they feel like the easiest option. Swiping through social media posts, reading whatever news story happens to be most recent, a bit of gossiping maybe, or basically anything on YouTube. We like these activities because they cheat our dopamine system. Dopamine's the chemical in our brains that helps reinforce our motivation for doing something (or avoiding doing it). These lightweight activities feel easier to do than anything productive because they require very little energy or thought. But actually, they don't relax us.
Social media and news stories have been shown to raise our stress levels (keeping up with the Joneses and fear of missing out) or drive us to spend mental energy on stressful problems we can't take action on (most mainstream news stories). But the apps are well designed to make them feel satisfying. This can leave us feeling unrested and unsure why.
What we can do instead
Our brains generally work in one of two modes when we're awake: focussed or unfocused. Both are useful. When you're working on a task your brain will focus, shutting out unnecessary thought processes and stimuli to get the job done. But this is like flexing a muscle — it can exhaust you if you do it continuously for too long. So we need to force ourselves into unfocussed mode every so often. This relaxes our brain and allows it to make unexpected connections. This is why procrastination, done right, is an excellent tool for coming up with new ideas.
So here are some ideas for how to spend those 10 minute puddles of time that will help to relax your poor overworked brain.
Lil' bit of exercise
Have a stretch, take a walk. The change of pace from computer work is a good break in itself, but a little physical activity gets the blood flowing and allows your brain to properly defocus from the task you were doing. Just don't try and browse social media while you do it.
Lil' bit of reading
Books are fertiliser for your brain. In a good way. Reading something you've actually chosen to read is a great way of switching your brain to a more relaxing mode for a bit. And with books so readily available on your phone wherever you are, you can always sneak in a couple of ten minute reads throughout the day, even if your main reading is done with lovely-smelling paper books. And with just a couple of ten minute reads a day, you could get through an extra 20 - 30 books a year.
Lil' bit of meditation
Some people are put off the idea of meditation by the stereotype of sitting cross-legged and ohm-ing your way to Nirvana. But mediation comes in all sorts of flavours and there'll be one that can help your brain unwind wherever you are. I use the 'grounding' technique, where you spend several minutes just focussing on the sensory experience of what you're doing at that very moment: the feel of the chair on your legs, the sound of the people going by outside, the taste of the coffee... Just taking a moment to not rush past everything but to experience it helps my brain take a breath. Give it a go.
Whole lotta nothing
Doing nothing is really good for you, and really difficult to actually do. When you've spent all day furiously rushing through work, actually getting your brain to stop can be really difficult. What people often find when they first start doing nothing is that ideas start cropping up for what they were just working on. But if you can resist acting on them right away (write them down instead), you can find your brain coming up with all sorts of ideas you hadn't realised you were thinking about. This is why the pomodoro method is so popular — it forces you to take a break and do nothing after each period of work, and as you get used to it, you'll find it quicker to switch modes and relax your brain.
Of course, mixing and matching these ideas is probably best. Sometimes you'll need that leg-stretch, while other times a quick read might be what you need. The key is to make a conscious decision to do it, and not let your phone or email drag you downstream at the whim of an algorithm. Your brain is precious, make sure you take care of it.