Recover From a Tough Workday

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You crush it in the weight room or on the track, and you know better than to go back out and do the same thing again the next day. You’ve got to offset those high-octane workouts with “rest” days of low-intensity activity to help pummeled muscles bounce back more quickly than they would if you just recovered on the couch. Same goes for your brain. Hustling 24/7 turns it into mush, too. And it turns out that the best way to un-mush your brain looks a whole lot like the active recovery techniques you apply after the gym. Which means they require a little energy and a bit of strategy.

Last year, research published by scientists including Andrew Bennett, Ph.D., who’s now in the department of management at Old Dominion University, found that even ten minutes of intense concentration was enough to induce mild fatigue and diminish attention and vigor. The good news is that breaks as short as one to nine minutes provided a significant reboot. The better news is that breaks that engaged the brain—that involved active recovery—were more restorative than ones that didn’t. “Attention and focus are finite resources that need to be replenished at regular intervals,” says Bennett. “If you want to reenergize your brain, it’s helpful to do something mildly engaging.” And do it frequently, he says.

The three-pound cerebral powerhouse between your ears needs restorative strategies throughout the day, not just every once in a while. Without them, you’re putting yourself at risk of exhaustion, burnout, and a decrease in your cognitive firepower. Mental fatigue makes you less efficient and more distractible, irritable, and error prone. Brain drain impairs you physically, too, reducing endurance and performance in everyone from soccer players and boxers to swimmers and cyclists.

To feel more engaged and productive at work—and have enough mojo for the gym when you’re done—you have to know how to “do” mental active recovery. Try a few of these science-based tactics.

To help your brain recover, tap the power of the new

Bennett’s microbreak study confirmed a quirk of the brain that cognitive research had suggested for years: We’re charged up by new experiences, especially ones we enjoy. “New sights, sounds, smells, or activities can revive you,” says Bennett. (Monotony may be one reason we all felt so dulled down during the pandemic.) Interestingly, watching a funny video counts as a “novel experience” for your brain in the middle of the workday. Last year, researchers in Belgium showed that giving the brain something novel activated the pleasure chemical dopamine in mice, which spurred them to learn things more quickly. Our brains are so responsive to novelty that you likely don’t have to do anything dramatic. In fact, people in Bennett’s study who spent their breaks watching Saturday Night Live clips had significantly increased vigor and attention and less fatigue compared with those who did a relaxing activity like stretching or even meditating. “Humor is novel—and novelty is a powerful way to reenergize your brain,” he says. And people enjoyed the clips more than stretching or meditating, which likely added to the restorative effect of the new experience. (Also worth noting: Choosing to watch a brief clip to revive yourself mid-workday is fundamentally different from numbing your mind with hours of passive viewing at night.)

Detach from work

When employees put work aside and don’t stress about unanswered emails or mull their to-do lists in the evening, they feel more engaged and happier at work the next morning, according to researchers in Germany. Known as “detachment,” cognitively distancing yourself from work during the day can give your brain a boost, too. You can detach in a variety of ways, like searching Airbnb for a vacation rental or making a new workout playlist. In studies, detachment researchers sometimes instruct people to think about a hobby or leisure activity they enjoy. “Just stay away from anything stressful or cognitively demanding,” advises Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Francisco and a coauthor of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. And don’t check email! It can take your mind off the task you’re doing, but it’s still work.

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Switch to default mode

Whether you’re writing a report, making sales calls, or sketching plans for a building, your brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is responsible for work-related cognitive functions like focus and attention, is in go mode. But just as you need to avoid going heavy on leg sets on consecutive days, it’s helpful for your PFC to get a break from heavy lifting, too. To the rescue: your default mode network (DMN)—or, as Srini Pillay, M.D., author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try, calls it, the “unfocus network”—the regions of the brain that are active when you’re daydreaming and allowing your mind to wander. “When you work for long stretches, the brain experiences focus fatigue, but if you weave periods of unfocus into your day, you give yourself a chance to recover,” says Dr. Pillay.

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Daydreaming is different from distraction in that you let your mind roam instead of trying to force it to think about something specific. It’s also not doing nothing—it’s more like you’re doing some mental housekeeping and clearing space for a reset to happen. Get into your DMN by doing a rote activity—go for a walk, wash dishes, take a shower, or water your plants—which sets the stage for mind wandering because it doesn’t require you to engage your prefrontal cortex. If you find yourself ruminating about unpleasant work issues, try positive constructive daydreaming, a version that demands slightly more cognitive control, suggests Dr. Pillay. Imagine a situation like running through the woods with your dog or walking along a beach, he says. Letting your unfocus network out to play not only reenergizes you but also bolsters creativity, says Dr. Pillay. “It gives your brain the chance to make unconscious associations that can trigger ‘aha’ moments. That’s why so many creative breakthroughs happen in the shower.”

Get a dose of nature

“Work requires top-down, goal-directed attention,” says Dr. Gazzaley. “It’s effortful, because you’re actively concentrating and trying to suppress distractions.” But there’s another type, known as bottom-up attention, in which you allow your mind to ponder whatever thoughts spontaneously come up. “Giving your brain time for bottom-up attention in the midst of a hectic day can offset the strain of top-down attention,” says Dr. Gazzaley. The best way to flip the switch from top-down to bottom-up? Try a hit of nature. “Bottom-up attention is ancient and is driven by stimuli you take in through your senses, so the natural world is an ideal place to experience it,” he says. Stroll through a park for five minutes, look out the window and watch some trees blowing in the wind, or notice the reflections in a puddle for a minute or two. “Bottom-up attention is relaxing and restorative, because you’re allowing your mind to be gently pulled by your senses, while top-down attention requires pushing,” explains Dr. Gazzaley.

Turn off the lights

It might not seem like an active recovery strategy, but your brain is plenty busy when it’s seemingly offline. “Napping gives your brain’s focus circuits some much-needed rest while other parts of the brain kick into overdrive,” says Dr. Pillay. Naps not only improve alertness; they also refresh elements of executive functioning, like working memory, which you rely on throughout the day. “Just five to 15 minutes can restore your energy and give you one to three hours of clarity,” says Dr. Pillay. (Easier when working from home than in a traditional office, we know.) The U. S. Army released its updated physical-fitness-training field manual last year, complete with a new section on napping, which encourages soldiers to use short naps to “restore wakefulness and promote performance.” Why not deploy the strategy on the work battlefield, too?

This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Men’s Health.

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