We oftentimes get caught up in the mentality that if we work harder and longer than everyone else, then we will be the more successful than everyone else. Turns out, this is all wrong. It may seem counter-intuitive, but if you really want to solve a problem, come up with a solution, or boost your creativity, then give your brain some down time.

While it’s not totally understood yet, our brains prefer to solve problems at the subconscious level – which means we need to abandon the idea that creative solutions come from spending copious amounts of time working on a problem. Instead, we need to find a balance between work and play. Relaxing activities that are repetitive and/or monotonous can actually give our brains time to process information and find creative solutions to problems.

Our best ideas don’t tend to come from moments when we are slouched over in our cubicles, but rather, occur to us when we wake from a dream, or when we are hiking through a forest, or basking in the shower. And scientists are starting to understand the physiology of why these monotonous activities boost our creative problem solving, which is exciting!

When we are engaged in relaxing activities, our brains release dopamine – which as we know, makes us happy and can allow creative thoughts to flourish. Not only that, but repetitive or monotonous activities, by definition, require very little thought. Instead of trying to control our thoughts and force ourselves to come up with solutions to problems, we are giving our brains freedom to roam and drift and stumble upon new ideas – or to simply process what has happened throughout the day in order to clear up space for problem-solving later on. More and more companies are recognizing the importance of giving their employees adequate vacation time and even flexibility to work from home with the understanding that getting away from work can actually increase productivity!

There are many different relaxing and monotonous activities that can rejuvenate you, de-stress you, and allow your brain to work its magic. These are just a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Cooking. We’re not talking about opening a box of frozen lasagna and throwing it in the oven. In order to get the benefits, you will need to do the prep work on your own. Chopping veggies is a very repetitive activity that allows the brain to “zone out,” which is exactly what we’re looking for in this instance! It takes very little thought, and the repetition can be quite soothing and meditative.
  2. Exercise. We all know that exercise is just all around good for us. It’s good for our organs. It’s good for our happiness levels. And it’s great for allowing our brains to drift (just don’t think too much about it or you’ll ruin it). However, it’s important to pick a type of exercise that you enjoy or you won’t stick to it. Not sure what you like? Try something new every week until you find your thing. Try hiking. Or maybe team sports. What about yoga or swimming or martial arts?
  3. Showering. Who doesn’t love a great shower? And have you noticed that you sometimes come up with your best or most creative ideas while showering? This is because it is an enjoyable, but monotonous activity, that allows your brain the freedom to roam and play and be creative without any pressure!
  4. Cleaning. Sometimes cleaning can seem like a daunting and/or never-ending task, but if you can give it 10-30 minutes of effort, you may reap the benefits of not only a clean house, but also a sharp mind. Cleaning usually doesn’t require a lot of thinking, which is exactly what we want here. Rhythmic and monotonous activities allow our bodies to go into a sort of meditative state. Turn on some music you enjoy and feel free to dance while you’re at it! Who says that cleaning has to be torture? I’ve used cleaning as a de-stressor many times with great success.
  5. Walking your dog (cat, pig, goat etc.) or yourself. I can’t recommend this enough! I walk my dog nearly every morning and every evening. It gets me outside (soak up that vitamin D and oxygen!), gets me moving, and exposes me to the early morning sunlight which helps regulate my sleep rhythm. Most importantly, though, a 30-minute walk gives me a time that is set aside for relaxation and free thought. Sometimes my brain thinks through the schedule for my day, and I end up making plans for when or how I will get something accomplished. Other times, my brain sorts through different ideas for my future or considers solutions for various problems. Sometimes, I just walk and just be, without thinking about anything. Added Bonus: it makes my dog a happier dog.
  6. Sleeping. Now that we’re adults, we know how awesome sleep is. Your assignment? Make time for it! This one is absolutely critical to your brain’s prowess. Researchers have found that our brains process information while we are sleeping. Getting the right amount of sleep helps us establish memories and to think more clearly during the day – both of which are essential for being able to solve problems. Make sure you establish a nighttime routine such as taking a bath or reading a book for 30 minutes before bed. Sticking to a sleep schedule will make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep over time. Our bodies have a sleep rhythm and want to stick to it!
  7. Sex. Assuming that it’s enjoyable and with someone you trust, sex can be a great way to relax and allow your brain to de-clutter.
  8. Live music. Go see a local band. Go see your favorite national act. Just go. Watching a live music performance is incredibly cathartic. Music without lyrics is oftentimes the best since words can distract our brains from roaming freely. Think classical, EDM, or jam bands!
  9. Meditation. This is the obvious one. While it is difficult to establish a meditation practice, it is well worth our while. In addition to the numerous health benefits of meditation, it may also improve our mental acuity, allowing our brains to work out solutions to problems and think more clearly and more creatively.

Finding the Balance

Everything in life is all about balance. If you have a job that requires a lot of mental acuity, then give yourself some down time after work. Dedicate some time to the above activities or to other activities that you find relaxing and monotonous. While we oftentimes feel pressured to work, work, work, taking time to relax is actually critical to improving our mental acuity and ability to creatively solve problems.

Conversely, if your daily job is already repetitive and monotonous (I’ll let you decide), then you will need to engage in more mentally stimulating activities in order to achieve balance in your life. I like to think about it in terms of my laptop: if I never turn it on, it’s useless, but if I leave it running all the time and never re-start it, it gets really sluggish and sometimes stops working altogether.

Make a plan to find the balance in your life. Start today.