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Downtime is an effortless way to improve your memory (2018) (bbc.com)
259 points by how-about-this 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments





I recently started reading "Deep Work" by Cal Newport and this is one of the points highlighted in the book. I'd recommend it (even though I haven't finished it yet).

I'm trying to be mindful during my day and I walk to and from work every day which is around 9km total. The beneficial effects (on attention, memory etc.) are twofold. In the morning it wakes me up and by the time I'm in the office I'm ready to dive into my work straight away. I see a lot of people that arrive drowsy or sleepy in the office and they need at least an hour to actually start doing anything meaningful. In the evening I use the walk as a "shutdown" ritual after which I don't think about work anymore. I also take a 30-40 minute walk during lunch time. It's a good point during midday to relax a little bit and be refreshed for the second half of the day. Overall for the day I walk around 11-12km. Health benefits of walking aside I really see how it's making me more focused and I do better work because of it.


I started that book but never finished it. I got about half way thru and quit b/c I never found anything that revolutionary. A lot of it seemed to be rehashing studies that other people did.

The gist of it seemed to be: if you need to do work that is mentally challenging, block off large chunks of time to do that work b/c interruptions are more disruptive that you think they are.

It would make a good blog post and I'm sure there are hundreds of them on the topic but I don't get why it needs to be a book other than he convinced someone to publish it for him.


I see your point and I agree - the book is not groundbreaking or revolutionary. Me walking to work is something I've done for a couple of years and not an idea I discovered because of the book.

With that said I think it's a well written and researched piece. I'll finish it because even though I'm already using some of the techniques provided inside, it's good to reinforce the things you know but it's also good to see things from another perspective. Like for example I've never really given thought to the monastic or bi-modal style of deep work although they are reality for a lot of people. Small things like that are valuable (at least to me).


My walking schedule evolved somewhat naturally once I started. I had always been active, but normally sports or weightlifting. So when I started walking I didn't expect to gain much, I figured I was already fit. I was wrong, I gained so much cognitive clarity that I drifted toward walking more and more until I could easily be walking 3+ hours a day. It works incredibly as a clarifier, even if I don't figure anything out on the walk, when I come back to it later things tend to seem much simpler.

It's funny how this seems to be a form of meditation. It seems like an incredibly useful tool for the modern age.

I wonder sometimes just how the brain manages to deal with the influx of all these new, abstract ideas on a daily basis. Doesn't seem like there's much time to digest it all.

But if this works, if it really is an effective tool for learning, I could see it as a good way of bringing clarity into your life as your brain synthesizes patterns and makes sense of what it's been working on for the past few hours.

The indecisiveness that people often report feeling during the day may just be a lack of time spent consolidating all the information you've acquired up to that point.

Maybe it's a sign you need to take a step back and do absolutely nothing.


> Maybe it's a sign you need to take a step back and do absolutely nothing.

I do that every once in a while. After enough of it, I end up feeling full of inspiration and desire to start working on something. It's a good way to kickstart little personal projects.

Only problem is the amount of downtime needed for that effect seems somewhat long. I wish I could do it more often.


I found commuting on a train was really good for this. I would purposefully never look at my phone and just stare out of the window. I really miss that time now that I work from home.

Switching to a "remote work" career was similarly hard for me for this reason. I find it's helpful to "fake a commute" and go for a walk before working. The walk is mindless, just letting my mind drift, but gets my blood flowing and mind ready for the day.

> The walk is mindless, just letting my mind drift

Agree on that, I tried switching to the running to make this time more productive but it wasn't the same, somehow walking has a special place between getting relaxed and active for my body.


That's also the one interesting argument against podcasts. That they take the last remaining moments of doing nothing (vacuuming, doing the dishes, commuting,...)

Especially interesting since one of the most popular podcasts is also run by a very reflected meditation proponent (Sam Harris).


One thing I like doing with podcasts is pausing them often to consider my own position. Form my own argument- given the new information I've just obtained.

Often times the wheels just keep turning and I'll forget I was even listening to a podcast, and spend the majority of the time listening to myself think.

I absolutely agree with the argument you mentioned with short term tasks like vacuuming, dishes, etc. If you don't have time to get fully invested (over an hour) it's much better to just listen to your own thoughts.


Most podcasts can be easily listened to at 2x speed. You quickly realise how useless many of them are.

It's funny you mention this, I've been thinking about this lately. I make a 1.1 hour sporty bike ride every day and listen to podcasts while doing so, but I'm often asking myself if I should just not do that and instead listen to myself.

The same goes for falling asleep, where I used to listen to podcasts but they got replaced by YouTube videos which I just listen to. I remember the time when I dealt with my thoughts before falling asleep. That was maybe 10 years ago.

And kids nowadays will probably never get to know that feeling.


I’ve never been able to “deal with my thoughts” and also get sleep so since I was able to read I consume fiction before bed to wipe the mental slate clean. Before it was books, now mostly audiobooks or occasionally music so I can keep it dark for my wife. If I can’t do this its usually 1-3 hrs of brain processing worries from the day, next day etc. There must be others like me who can’t just turn off instantly.

FWIW, I'm very similar. I find that the light pollution of a fully dimmed screen in night mode, reading light text on a black background, is negligible. (FWIW I mostly read in Pocket.) That amount of light doesn't keep me awake, let alone my wife. I think headphones would disturb me much more.

You're not alone. Sometimes my day continues in bed. I'll even think of things I need to do the next day, turn over to my phone, and write it down so I don't forget.

I, too, need something to distract me in order to really wind down.


I'd think you'd be better off listening for trucks. :)

Depends on the podcast maybe? The only ones I currently listen to are D&D podcasts so it’s not like I’m learning anything. It usually makes me want to do work on my own D&D campaign and be creative instead, if I’m not just enjoying listening to it.

I enjoy long walks (30-100km) so they take me from 4 to 18 hours. I see them as a kind of meditation so I don't listen to any podcasts or even music during that time. I feel it would be wrong somehow.

"We don’t give them any specific instructions with regards to what they should or shouldn’t do while resting,” Dewar says. “But questionnaires completed at the end of our experiments suggest that most people simply let their minds wander In one study, for instance, participants were asked to imagine a past or future event during their break, which appeared to reduce their later recall of the newly learnt material. So it may be safest to avoid any concerted mental effort during our down time. "

Astounding. I assumed that the high performing test subjects would have used some sort of special memorization technique, but in fact doing and thinking nothing actually wins out.


It is possible none of the subjects were familiar with memory techniques. Though I expect the same results would hold: after performing the technique, take a break so the brain can transfer the encoding into long term storage.

Doesn't seem too surprising. Mindfulness & meditation, shown to improve cognitive abilities, are all about clearing the mind, rather than actively using the mind for recall or calculation.

Completely disagree. Every time my servers are offline it stresses me out, can't sleep, customers yelling at me.

There's nothing worse than downtime! Five nines baby!


Based on the downvotes some people clearly don't have a sense of humour.. but this made me chuckle!

I made a sardonic reply to someone else's joke reply the other day and it was fun to watch it bounce around all day between +4 and -3 every couple of hours. Everything in moderation.

This is really funny.

After some long nights either performing work tasks or going to local meetups I try to take a nap on the train when I commute back to work. Sometimes during my breaks I do some breathing exercises using my Apple Watch.

But, now that I am using meal replacements the actual time that I take to eat lunch and or breakfast goes from 15 minutes to nearly 1-5 minutes which I spend preparing the meal replacement and ingesting it. Since I now have 25 minutes left and I typically eat at around 11am when most people eat around 1pm I have actually started either meditating or doing nothing.

Going on for other ergonomics that should be done during work and or mental tasks remember to check that your workspace is paired with a good chair and that your monitor is at eye level and your mouse and keyboard or other input devices don't require you to reach.

Another thing that is handy is rewarding yourself for a task not necessarily with food but with some form of exercise. After I complete a task using a computer I typically take a victory lap. This seems to actually cause positive reinforcement by rewarding myself with that victory lap. I know that dog trainers will use a toy instead of food to reward their dogs. It also will help your ergonomics and could help with back problems. I find that walking and or doing planking removes back pain for me (I'm 31).


I honestly can’t tell whether this is satire.

This isn't satire... :(

I find more and better solutions to problems without actively thinking about them in a 1 hour yoga class than I can actively trying to solve them all day at work.

It's gotten to the point that I need to bring pen and paper with me into practice.


Do you find you have an epiphany if you don't think hard about it at all ? I find I wake to a solution the next day, having indicated to my subconscious that the question is important by thinking about it for a good while the prior day. I sadly don't have a way to simply delegate to my subconscious without this interim step.

Try meditation.

I just closed my eyes in the tub a few minutes ago and BAM... another problem solved.

Removing stimulation (visually by closing your eyes) is an incredible way to fast track critical thinking.


I've said to myself that I do my best work in the bathroom. Whether sitting on the toilet (sorry) or standing in the shower, it seems that enforced brain idle time can be more productive than "trying".

I wonder if there's also a relation to the 'doorway = change of context' in there somewhere? It literally gets you thinking outside the box.


For me it's the shower, running or cycling. Performing some kind of physical task that is largely done on 'auto-pilot' in physical space. A more complex task, such as playing soccer, which requires that I exert physical and mental effort won't produce these results.

Off-topic, even maybe the inverse, one of the things I like about 'more complex' tasks like playing sports, is the single-mindedness that goes with it. It quietens the rest of the world for a time; nothing matters but the immediate, and it takes up 100% of processing to do it justice.

>is the single-mindedness that goes with it. It quietens the rest of the world for a time; nothing matters but the immediate, and it takes up 100% of processing to do it justice

This right here is the essence of "Meditation". No gimmicks, No bullshit, nothing.

Stages from the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali - "Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi".

You can do this instant to instant on any current activity you are engaged in (aka "Mindfulness") or for extended periods of time on literally any one objective/activity.


That's diffused vs. focused modes of thinking. I see it like a river entering a new landscape. In the focused mode the landscape has defined hills and valleys so the river has little choice where to flow. The Diffused mode is like a very flat landscape, not much is going on there so the water can access pretty much any part of it or keep changing the way it flows randomly connecting different points.

My best ideas - the ones that lead to actual publishable breakthroughs - all seem to happen in the shower. Some combination of enforced downtime, warmth, relaxation and white noise from the water seems especially effective.

After a demanding session of piano practice I often have the natural desire to just sit and look out of the window and think and do nothing for approx. 10 min.

As I grow older, I can feel it when I learn something new. That's usually my cue to stare into nothingness and just think about what I just learned before letting it just get absorbed.

I'd really like to see controlled comparisons of different forms of cognitive downtime--daydreaming, meditation, gaming, sports, yoga--measuring for these effects.

When I read this title I thought it's about optimizing servers by rebooting them more often so they get rid of leaked memory. Also a form of medition I guess.

Maybe day dreaming has a similar memory consolidation effect to dreaming?

Using this to excuse my 6+ hour Cities Skylines binge on a Sunday.

Have there been any studies on the effects of stress by playing computer games? Maybe it's the type of games I play, but I often find I feel more stressed after playing computer games.

Yes, it's basically congruent with what the BBC article mentions. Being immersed into a video game leads to less memory formation of what happened beforehand. This can be used in trauma prevention etc.: https://www.nature.com/articles/mp201723

I assume it's not far from work. I used to only play CSGO if I drank wine to help the stress. Usually a small glass every other night or so. I ended up trying all the wine in one rack at Safeway over a year...

+1 on it being the type of game.


You'd need to work a bit more on your excuse, because this study clearly suggests that you shouldn't occupy your mind with anything else during the downtime.

Silicon Valley is backwards in this regard. There's this mentality of always being busy; I can't help but feel it is a ruse for extroverts to flash their social proof at each other. In Silicon Valley, people always want to seem busier than they actually are, and people who are not busy are seen as inferior.

The next time someone asks if you're working on a side project, say "no". Carefully notice how their interest quickly turns into contempt. Similarly, people don't want to hear that you're "taking it easy" or "doing nothing" this weekend. That's literally all I tell people at work, and it just turns people off.


Yeah exactly, I think a small percentage of people do and they lead the innovation. The overwhelming majority don’t understand even the most basic reasoning behind almost anything since they never rest and reflect on what they’re doing, but follow the buzz as a career path — which works to a degree better than if they were coming up with their own ideas at least.

I have a client that I tell folks frequently they need to rest and reflect in order to improve their leverage and understanding how to better manage their growth, since they’re just exhausted and do stupid stuff all the time as a result. So the simplest observations I offer they think I’m a genius for.


Hm, I’m in college right now and I have the opposite perspective: ask people whether they’re doing any side projects. If they are, then they’re probably not packing their schedules with classes and with busy work. At the least, you know they don’t care about the veneer of productivity because working on side projects and hobbies is probably the least productive thing to do from a normal university perspective.

Ehh, I think you’re projecting quite a bit here. From my experience, side projects are what sets sets students apart in undergraduate. I frequently show around my side projects at career fairs and get lots of interviews as a result.

I am feeling a little bit of guilt and stress from working on a side project over Thanksgiving instead of on coursework. :P

It isn't specific to Silicon Valley, people are like it round the world.

But mostly in places that try hard to imitate SV.

So what do you do on the weekends?

Watch television. Read good articles. Clean a little bit. Relax.

Usually nothing. Sometimes, laundry, cleaning etc.

I'm taking it easy this weekend.

But what does "taking it easy" mean?

Is this title really "Resting is a good way to rest" ?

> It seems to benefit young and old people alike

Oh wow this is science.


"Effortless"

I envy David Robson at the BBC, for whom it is apparently effortless to take time away. Because it certainly isn't without effort for me to not accidentally find myself back at my desk, late in the evening, working on just one more thing.


Doing nothing is literally effortless.



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