How To Give Your Brain A Break Without Booking Vacation Days

(Hint: Think Plastic)

How to give your brain a break by relying on neuroplasticity

✔ All to-do’s completed for the week

✔ Dinner plans set for Meatless Monday

✔ Workout and game night scheduled

When you get that ideal routine down, it can feel empowering to be so predictably productive.

But then life gets too busy. You might miss a meal or get behind on a few tasks and the whole thing goes off the rails. All you’re left with is a brain-shaped dent in the middle of that brick wall your productivity just hit. It probably feels like it’s time to step back and take a vacation. After all, you’ve been working really hard! Sometimes you do need that break to avoid burnout or to achieve what productivity expert Tim Ferriss calls a healthy work-life separation

But it can also be that when you say “I just need a break,” what your brain really means is: “I need a change.”

For years, neuroscience has looked into ways to train and rewire thought processes to boost productivity, like visualization techniques favored by Olympic athletes. One researcher literally turned his worldview upside down by wearing goggles that flipped everything he saw upside down—and he was able to ride a bike within the week.

Science has discovered that the brain is a fickle creature: it not only continues to grow through adulthood, it likes new and shiny things. By giving your brain new experiences or activities to learn, you’ll be energizing it with similar effects to meditation or a restful break from the stressful, stuck situation you find yourself in when routine goes wrong.

So if you can’t squeeze a beach getaway into your plans this week, keep reading for some ways to give your brain a vacation without packing your suitcase.

Mold Your Motivation Through Neuroplasticity

If routine helps you be productive, why does it sometimes make you feel like you need a break from it all?

The brain has billions of neuropathways that it uses to accomplish things. Some pathways are used more than others. The more you rely on the existing pathways to go about your life, the less you tend to explore others. Just like a walk in the fresh air feels restful after sitting in a hot office, without treading new mental ground your brain doesn’t get a chance to stretch its muscles, both figuratively and literally.

Neuroplasticity (also called neural plasticity or brain plasticity) is the capacity of the brain to evolve and change throughout an individual’s life. It is adaptable and can be molded, like plastic. In fact, every time you learn something new that subsequently changes the way you think or do something, you are using the power of neuroplasticity:

Plasticity helps you learn things permanently—and it turns your brain into one tough cookie. For example, if your vision becomes impaired, your brain’s plasticity is what helps your other senses turn it up a notch and compensate for your loss of sight. You can also play around with that plasticity on purpose to help your brain grow and feel refreshed when things get heavy.

To give your brain a rest from the everyday, take a page from the neuroplasticity guidebook and get into a vacation mindset. The secret? Novelty.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang, a brain will make the most of a rest or vacation when it experiences something new. With new sights, sounds, smells, and activities, you’re helping your brain explore and energize with new pathways. And while you’re busy carving out new pathways at that live-edge wood carving class, your brain can rest and recalibrate. Think of it like rerouting traffic from all those other busy pathways you use most often in your daily life. With a break from busy activity, they’ll be fresh and ready for the next rush hour!

There are a couple parameters that should help qualify an activity for positive neuroplasticity purposes: 

  • Is the new activity different enough from your everyday to make you feel like you’ve really stepped out of your comfort zone and taken in a new perspective? For example, if you’re working with data on a computer all day, you might take up painting, dodgeball, or woodworking. All of these activities require a different type of creativity, logic, and physical skill than typing and thinking with numbers.

  • Is the new activity fun for you? Everyone handles stress differently, so this is a very personal question. At a very basic level, your brain will react to unwanted stress in negative ways. Anything that can enjoyably give you a new perspective is a vacation—anything new that causes stress or wears down your energy levels isn’t giving your brain time to play and feel refreshed from novel experiences.

  • Can you make real time for this new activity in the long run? And will you? Author Michael Merzenich is a leading brain plasticity researcher who explores the topic in his book, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, and shows that, at first, any changes are temporary. Your brain will only take in the change permanently if it finds the experience to be novel or interesting enough, or the outcome to be important enough (good or bad) to be worth remembering. So if you love how you feel as a portrait painter, you may want to make it part of your long-term plans.

Dr. Kang notes that a novel activity can be as simple as reading a new book, visiting a new place, or trying a new activity. And when you make time for new skills that are personally interesting to you, the benefits of success are heightened. Your body will actually release more dopamine when you achieve goals that your mind has deemed more interesting and fulfilling to your core interests and values.

Here are some other tips for keeping up the motivation to mold your brain with novelty: 

  • Make a checklist of topics or activities you’ve always wanted to try, and break them out into weekly or monthly lists. (If you come up blank, ask others what hobbies or activities they really love and why.)
  • Then take action to schedule time in your calendar to disconnect from regular life and engage in the new activity.
  • When you accomplish that time for that activity, check it off on your list. Setting and achieving small goals releases dopamine, a feel-good hormone that will leave you eager to try that successful pathway again.

Get A Productivity Boost Thanks To The Novelty Effect

The novelty effect is a particularly strange psychological phenomenon that shines a light on just how finicky the human brain can be when it comes to feeling renewed and ready to go back to work. Research has uncovered that your performance at a task will initially improve when a new technology or process is introduced. That’s right—you can instantly get better at something old simply because your brain will be interested in the new process on the block.

This novelty trick can be as basic as a lightbulb. All the way back in the 1930’s, a quest for the optimal lighting in factories uncovered that no one type of lightbulb led workers to have more productive shifts. The mere act of swapping out the lightbulbs, however, spurred workers to get more done for a limited time after the change, becoming known as the Hawthorne effect 

So even if you’re not in a place or time to take a real break or learn a new skill, you give your brain some fresh energy by wrapping your existing work in new trappings.

Journalist Clive Thompson boosts productivity using an active 'novelty effect' strategy of changing up his apps and routines on a regular basis. The “temporary” nature of this effect is important: The key to taking advantage of this boost, and the neuroplasticity effects it might have, is to keep factors changing enough that you don’t have time to become overly used to their presence:

“The point is: The novelty effect isn’t a sham. It’s not an illusion. We really do experience genuine bursts of creativity or productivity from trying out some new tool.”

It’s not unlike a vacation in the end. You feel like you get a break from the same old humdrum when you work with a fresh outlook (or fancy new pen). But all-you-can-eat buffets and a hotel mattress lose their appeal over time, same as with new tools that might have expanded your perspective initially, but aren’t appealing enough to turn into permanent pathways. Isn’t the sign of a good vacation that moment when you realize you’re ready (and excited) to return to regular life?  

Consider using a tool that can be flexible enough to work with these moments of novelty but can still support the solid productivity habits that you might rely on when it’s time to keep plugging away at those regular tasks.

At the end of the day, the point is to be intentional about giving your brain a well-rounded and happy existence. It’s important to go on that beach vacation eventually, but in the meantime, you can start learning the local language or weaving a new sunhat to help combat those daily productivity doldrums.

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Next: How To Beat Decision Fatigue with Better Brain Habits

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