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Reclaim Your Breaks: Why Daydreaming Beats Phone Browsing

Updated: Aug 9, 2023


When was the last time you took a break? Not a holiday or a trip to the beach, but a little break in between your day where you left your mind free to dream, to people-watch on the train, or to take in the sounds and sights of nature?


Downtime, or periods of rest where we are not focused on work or other demanding tasks, is crucial for several reasons. From a cognitive perspective, downtime provides an opportunity for the brain to rest and rejuvenate, which in turn supports processes like memory consolidation, learning, and creative thinking. Moreover, downtime can reduce stress and anxiety levels, which are typically elevated during periods of continuous work or stimulation.


One study ("The 'Always on' Role: The Experience of Work-Related Email Use During Non-Work Time”) showed that when people kept checking work emails even after office hours, they started to feel overwhelmed and overworked, resulting in higher stress levels and a potential for burnout.


Even if we're not checking work emails, we browse our smartphones while waiting in line at a coffee shop or during our morning commute. While we often equate this to downtime or relaxation, using smartphones during non-work time can have several negative effects. Research has shown that the effects include disturbed sleep, increased anxiety and mood swings, decreased productivity and an increased risk of mental health conditions like depression.


So what can we do instead? Here are 2 suggestions:


People-watching

While this may seem unconventional as a suggestion, all of us do it! And the science shows that when we observe people without judgement (respecting boundaries and privacy, of course), it has several benefits:

  1. Mindfulness and relaxation: People-watching can foster a sense of mindfulness. Focusing on the present moment and the people around us can help us become more grounded, calming our mind and reducing stress.

  2. Empathy and understanding: Observing others can lead to better understanding of human behavior, which can promote empathy. By considering what someone else might be experiencing or feeling based on their behavior, we practice putting ourselves in other people's shoes.

  3. Inspiration and creativity: For artists, writers, and creatives of all kinds, people-watching can offer a wealth of inspiration. Observing different people, their behaviors, and interactions can spark new ideas and stimulate creativity.

  4. Social learning: People-watching can serve as a form of indirect social learning. By observing others, we can learn about social norms, behaviors, and consequences without having to experience them directly.

  5. Entertainment and enjoyment: Simply put, people-watching can be fun!

Daydreaming

Daydreaming, or the act of letting your mind wander from the task at hand, has long been seen as a sign of laziness or inattentiveness. However, recent psychological research has begun to highlight several benefits of daydreaming, including:

  1. Creativity Enhancement: Daydreaming can help stimulate creativity. When the mind wanders freely, it can make unique and novel connections, which can lead to creative ideas and problem-solving (Baird, Smallwood, Mrazek, Kam, Franklin, & Schooler, 2012).

  2. Future Planning: Daydreaming often involves thinking about the future. This mental time-travel can help us anticipate future events and plan for them effectively (Baird, Smallwood, & Schooler, 2011).

  3. Emotional Processing: Daydreaming can provide a space to process emotions and experiences. It can help us better understand and regulate our emotions, contributing to emotional health (Poerio, Totterdell, & Miles, 2013).

  4. Enhanced Learning: Periods of daydreaming or mind-wandering after learning new information can actually improve memory and consolidation of that information (McMillan, Kaufman, & Singer, 2013).

Respecting our need for downtime isn't a luxury; it's a necessity for our overall well-being. So, the next time you find yourself in line at the coffee shop or sitting on a park bench, put down your smartphone. Watch the world go by, let your mind wander, dream a little, and discover the joy and benefits of truly authentic downtime.


Note: These are only a few first steps based on research, and I hope they have been meaningful to you. For more customised and detailed support, I would recommend personal therapy.


About the Author


Diya John is a counselor and psychotherapist with a Masters in Psychology and a Diploma in Counselling from Australia. She founded Therapy Garden to make evidence-based counseling more accessible to expatriates, immigrants and the international community. She is based in Japan, but works with clients in different parts of the world via online therapy. Read more about her areas of specialisation and services here.


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References

  • Fossum, I. N., Nordnes, L. T., Storemark, S. S., Bjorvatn, B., & Pallesen, S. (2020). Effect of Restricting Bedtime Mobile Phone Use on Sleep, Arousal, Mood, and Working Memory: A Randomized Pilot Trial. Sleep Medicine.

  • Lissak, G. (2018). Digital Detox: The Effect of Smartphone Abstinence on Mood, Anxiety, and Craving. Addictive Behaviors.

  • Thomée, S., Härenstam, A., & Hagberg, M. (2011). Mobile Phone Use and Stress, Sleep Disturbances, and Symptoms of Depression Among Young Adults - a Prospective Cohort Study. BMC Public Health.

  • Lee, H., Kim, J. W., & Choi, T. Y. (2017). Smartphone Use and Work-School-Life Balance of College Students. New Media & Society.

  • Barber, L. K., & Santuzzi, A. M. (2015). The 'Always on' Role: The Experience of Work-Related Email Use During Non-Work Time. International Journal of Stress Management.

  • Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W. Y., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1117–1122.

  • Baird, B., Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2011). Back to the future: Autobiographical planning and the functionality of mind-wandering. Consciousness and Cognition, 20(4), 1604–1611.

  • Poerio, G. L., Totterdell, P., & Miles, E. (2013). Mind-wandering and negative mood: Does one thing really lead to another?. Consciousness and cognition, 22(4), 1412-1421.

  • McMillan, R. L., Kaufman, S. B., & Singer, J. L. (2013). Ode to positive constructive daydreaming. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 626.

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