|Personal Picture // Singapore, June 2013.|
As I discovered willpower is a finite resource, I also noticed the brain isn't in full activity all the time. It can only think hard, solve problems or engage in creative activities for so long before it needs down time. In other words, we need distractions, but our consumerist society made sure these distractions were linked to shopping.
The Need for Down TimeIt all started after my shopping fast misshap: how could this happen? When and why did I browse the website I bought from? Determined to understand and adjust, I realized it all stemmed from reading a lifestyle blog who promoted this website as a good source of natural and organic beauty products. But when and why was I browsing this blog in the first place? It was the end of the day, I was tired and my brain needed something easy and distracting to read.
Thinking about it, I usually can't write in the evening, nor draw or edit pictures. I play the violin right when coming home (because playing at 7AM would be hard on the neighbours), but if I don't play before dinner I usually can't bring myself to do it after. Why? Because these creative and learning activities require energy and after a long day of work, my brain needs down time. That's also when I used to read blogs, watch TV, browse websites - social media but also online shop recommendations.
How the Consumerist Society Exploits This Need for DistractionIn our consumerist society, distraction activities are often linked to shopping or building the desire to shop for something new. Watching TV - and its subsequent ads - is the most popular distraction after all. As the sadly infamous quote from Patrick Le Lay, then president of the French national TV TF1, said:
"There are many ways of talking about television. But, in a business perspective, let's be realistic: essentially, TF1's job is to help, say, Coca Cola, for example, sell their product. However, for an advertising message to be perceived, the watcher's brain must be available: in other words, it needs to be distracted and relaxed to prepare it between two advertising messages. What we sell to Coca Cola, is available human brain time."
Since TV is vastly funded by ads, I'm persuaded this cynical view of TV's role isn't that far from the truth, even if a bit simplistic. And it works because the brain needs distraction. What other distractions are common today? Browsing the Internets, including social media, blogs, and online shops. And going shopping itself.
When in need of distraction, the brain is drained of energy - maybe it's the end of the day, or the end of the week, after months of work without holidays... The common factor here is that the brain lacks of energy, willpower. I didn't find any research to support this, but it is possible that brain biases are particularly strong at that time, and that we are more likely to run in automatic mode.
Finding Alternative DistractionsHow to adapt to the brain's need for down time, without being vulnerable to purchase mistakes? Of course, I don't think we should remove distrations from our lives, the brain needs down time. But distractions don't have to come with commercial activities like browsing and filling up wishlists and baskets.
Here are some first ideas of how to rest after a long day or week: watching a light TV series or film like a comedy, simple, not too intricate crime fiction, action-packed stuff... Depending on your taste of course. If you watch it from a DVD or VOD, there will be no ad, and it's a good way to spend a quiet evening without being exposed to temptation (examples: Scrubs, NCIS, Poirot, Marvel films...) Another idea is to read light fiction: crime stories, young adult series...
This down time is also a good moment for a relaxing body care ritual: a warm bath (or foot bath if you don't have a bathtub, like me), a self massage of legs, feet, hands, face, a gentle body scrub followed by a body cream...
As a last idea, it might be counterintuitive but I find physical activity to be relaxing for the brain: running or walking, attending a sports or yoga class... Or, of course, going out with friends for an afterwork drink or a film seance always works well as a healthy distraction.
Since I found this out, I have reduced temptation and my shopping fast has remained successful so far. Here are simple resolutions I've put into place to improve my brain's down time:
- No internet in the evening - apart from checking a recipe for lunch or the weather, no reading or browsing after work
- No research or decision making when I'm tired - no looking for natural alternatives to my depleted shampoo, no checking out website recommendations...
- No TV - but I've been doing that for over two years now. I get my films and series though DVDs or VOD, ad-free.
- No complicated non fiction reading in the evening - my bedtime readings are now dedicated to light, entertaining fiction books.
- I prepare most of my next morning's needs in the evening though - since the morning is, on the contrary, a moment where my brain is on full speed, I don't want to waste that time preparing lunch, selecting outfits etc. So now, I prepare the food, the outfit, the handbag and sport gear for the next morning in the evening, when my brain is down, and dedicate more morning time to creative and learning activities - writing, attending MOOCs...
- I'm selecting moments to consider purchases, make decisions, analyze my behaviour - and this is often on Sundays when I'm most recharged, or in the morning. Never when my brain cries for down time.
Long Term Work: Reduce the Need for DistractionThe brain may need down time regularly, but it might be possible to reduce the need for distraction by fighting stress and busy-ness in the first place. As I read about slow life and mindfulness, it seems that regularly engaging in self awareness exercises, meditation, and otherwise slowing down helps maintaining the brain in a more alert state, and avoid depleting its energy too quickly.
I'm still on a learning path for this one, but here are the ideas I read about: get enough sleep, do one thing at a time, fight against artificial deadlines and feeling of urgency, engage in mindfulness and meditation exercises to train the brain to be more present and less "automatic"...
On the subject of training the brain to be more present, I'm currently reading the book "Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes" by Maria Konnikova. I'll probably dedicate a post to this very interesting book, but it seems a lot of Holmes's abilities are linked to him being mindful and observant, in the present moment and not stuck on automatic mode while lost in thoughts.
I am still in the middle of a learning curve when it comes to the subject of nurturing better distractions, finding down time activities, and cultivating mindfulness, but I think it might be an important component to overall well-being. What about you? Have you noticed a specific time of the day or week when you need distraction? How do you relax?