What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do to UnplugNone By Homaira Kabir
How often do you joyfully reply, “I’m well!” when someone asks you about your day? If you're like most people, you sigh, you shake your head, and you reply, "SO busy!"
In our fast-paced, busy-ness worshipping society, it almost seems that we've been conditioned to respond this way. We've come to believe that to have something of value to offer—and to contribute in meaningful ways—we have to be constantly on the go. This is even more true for those of us who've grown up believing that we have to achieve to prove our worth, or those of us who are naturally driven and have ambitious, type-A personalities.
The result is that many of us are striving from a place of fear, or "striving insecurely," as Professor Paul Gilbert at the Compassionate Mind Foundation puts it. And we're experiencing the stress, anxiety, comparison, shame, and depression that come with it.
If you relate to any of this, here are two things you need to know.
Learn How to Take Frequent Breaks
Despite our sophisticated, socialized exteriors, we humans in the 21st century are still operating in a hunter-gatherer mind and body. Like them, we too need to take time out to switch off our brains after bouts of focused work. And this does not mean being plugged into our technological devices, ticking off items on our to-do lists, or working out at the gym.
True relaxation is about switching off our focused mind to allow the default mode of the brain to switch on. As the mind recovers from activity, it begins to wander, to imagine, to explore ideas and engage our creativity. That’s something we don't do often enough.
Harvard lecturer Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar recommends thinking about mental recovery on three levels. The “Micro” level is the 60- to 90-minute mark, when we move away from whatever we're doing and let our minds take a break for a few minutes. The “Mid” level is the daily breaks we take, often before bedtime—perhaps a relaxation routine, a mindfulness practice, or a reflection journal. They allow us to make sense of our day, “file” what happened in our mental library, and let go of the stresses that naturally pile up over the course of the day. And then there is the “Macro” level, which happens a few times a year. It could be a short break of a couple of days, or a longer one where we travel, let go of our routines, and engage the novelty-seeking part of us. The secret, of course, is to resist the urge to stay updated on what's happening at work, unless it's absolutely necessary to do so.
Ask yourself: Which one are you doing well? Which one do you need to work on?
Engage Your Brain Effectively
Before you start planning your 3 breaks, here's the second thing you need to know. The human brain wanders approximately half the time we're awake and engaged in work of some kind. Yet not all of that mind-wandering is good for us. Research by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert shows that people tend to be mostly unhappy when their minds are in this default mode of operation.
In his book The Inner World of Daydreaming, psychologist Jerome Singer identified three different styles of daydreaming, which may help explain this conundrum. The first is simply poor attention control, where we find it difficult to focus on anything for long. Naturally, this stops us from engaging in deep work of any kind, and distracts us from our best thoughts. If that’s you, you'll benefit greatly from a daily mindfulness practice to discipline your mind without judgment or exasperation.
The second is what Singer calls “guilty-dysphoric,” where our minds ruminate about the negative things in our lives, without coming up with any real solution. They get caught in a loop of negativity that leads to feelings of unhappiness or helplessness. If you tend to do so, there's an analogy to food by Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now that may be really helpful: “Once you realize that a certain kind of food makes you sick, would you carry on eating that food and keep asserting that it is okay to be sick?”
Luckily, there's a third type of mind-wandering that’s beneficial for us. It’s called “positive-constructive,” and it allows us to engage in autobiographical planning. This is where we build coherence in our lives—connecting the dots from our past, making sense of who we are, and thinking about our future selves in relation to where we have been. It also includes the moral and interpersonal challenges we face every day, finds meaning in our experiences, and taps into our highest selves to rise up to them. The way to do so effectively is to engage our strengths of perspective, compassion, courage, and hope.
Ask yourself: Where does you mind wander when you're not focused? How does it make you feel?
So here’s the takeaway: Unplug regularly and do it well. You'll be crafting a life story you're proud to call your own!
Homaira Kabir is a recognized positive psychology coach and a researcher on women’s self-esteem. Check out your authentic self-worth on her website with her short and evidence-based quiz.
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