July 14, 2021 | Health Improvement, Podcast

The Health Benefits of Downtime, With Dr. Art Markman

What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘downtime’? 

If you’re in the HR and benefits world, you probably think of paid time off policies and work-life balance. This isn’t wrong, but there’s a more practical, everyday application you could be missing. 

In this episode of Health Is On The Way we interviewed Art Markman, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist, author, podcaster and blogger about: 

  • What is downtime? 
  • The different kinds of downtime and the effects it can have on our mental health 
  • How we become more effective when we use downtime intentionally
 

About Our Guest

Art Markman, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations.

His research explores a variety of topics in thinking including the way people form and use analogies, generate creative ideas, and make decisions. He blogs for Psychology Today, Fast Company, and Harvard Business Review. He also co-hosts the podcast Two Guys on Your Head, produced by KUT, Austin's NPR station. Art's books include Smart Thinking, Habits of Leadership, Smart Change, Brain Briefs and Bring Your Brain to Work.

In his spare time, Art plays saxophone in a Ska band, writes for the Psychology Department Limerick Committee, and hangs out with his family.

Additional, Relevant Resources 


Transcript

Brad Lawson:

Hi, I'm Brad Lawson.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

And I'm Susan Morgan Bailey.

Brad Lawson:

And this is Health Is On The Way, a podcast sponsored by Bravo Wellness. You may know what employee wellness is, but if you want to talk about what it should be, head to bravowell.com. Each episode features informed guests tackling emerging issues in health and healthcare.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Or sometimes, we take a fresh look at bold ideas. And each time, we aim to give you information you can act on to bring more health and well-being your way.

Brad Lawson:

As always this isn't healthcare advice. Please consult your own qualified professional to talk about your needs and situation.

Brad Lawson:

Hey Susan.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Hey Brad!

Brad Lawson:

How are ya?

Susan Morgan Bailey:

I am good. I'm in the middle of some intentional, extended downtime.

Brad Lawson:

Well, it's funny that you bring that up because this idea of downtime is the topic of the podcast today. So, I'm glad you're practicing what we learned.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Well, perfect! Who's our guest?

Brad Lawson:

We actually have an amazing guest, Dr. Art Markman, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas Austin. He has written a ton of books, and I think most interestingly, he posts his own podcast, "Two Guys On Your Head" with Dr. Bob Duke from the Butler School of Music.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

He's got a lot going on. I found him after reading an article about downtime that he had posted; helping us understand there's lots of different kinds of downtime and he shares that with us in our discussion. And one of the things that stood out for me as someone who is obsessed with problem-solving and loves to get to the bottom of things, I loved where he talked about, where he talked about how downtime can really help you be a better problem solver. So that was one of the big takeaways for me from our quick and really impactful discussion. What about you?

Brad Lawson:

Well, I took away two things. Number one, is I really misconstrued what downtime was. I tend to think of like vacation, but I think he really focused on just getting away and giving your mind a break from you know, whatever it is that is the problem that you're, you're focused on. I think the other thing, so maybe three things, the other thing was that you know, the value of, of what we tend to think of as health and well-being, not just on our physical health, but as being higher performers and whatever we want to be a higher performer at. It could be, you know, at work and our relationships. And then the third thing was, Dr. Markman continued the string of guests that at least make me feel inadequate about how little I get done. The call does so much that, you know, you know, by the end of the conversation I, you know, was really enthused about the conversation, but also was like, man, I need to get more done so.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Well, then you need downtime. I think that's what we've learned. More done, more downtime.

Brad Lawson:

Which is counterintuitive. Which I love, right?

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Yeah, me too.

Brad Lawson:

Alright, well, let's get at it right. Dr. Markman. Thank you very much for joining the podcast.

Dr. Art Markman:

It is great to be here.

Brad Lawson:

You are an expert in a lot of subjects, including, it sounds like all aspects or most aspects of the mind and mental health. But today, we really want to dive into, I think something that most people understand, but maybe they don't, which is like downtime. Like what, what the role of downtime plays in our emotional, mental and physical health. How did you, how did you start researching and be focused on this?

Dr. Art Markman:

You know, it's come about in a variety of different ways. I care a lot about the way the human element of the workplace. And when you begin to think about that human element, then you have to worry about what is it that allows people to operate at peak efficiency. And that peak efficiency is, does not happen if you're working all the time, and if you never get away from things.

Dr. Art Markman:

There are both cognitive and emotional reasons why that happens. So on the cognitive side, if you bang your head against a problem over and over and over again, what happens is you keep thinking about that problem in the same way, every single time, because it turns out when you want to have a creative solution to a problem, the only way to be creative is to generate different descriptions of the problem that you're trying to solve. Because each description that you create, leads you to pull different information out of memory. But what happens is when you, when you bang your head against the problem repeatedly, you, you stop coming up with new ways to describe the problem. So you keep asking your mind the same question, and then you're frustrated when your mind gives you the same answer again. So getting away from the problem changes the way you're thinking about that problem.

Dr. Art Markman:

There are some natural things that happen because of the way your brain works, where you think about the problem a little bit more abstractly, because you've walked away from it. You also have the opportunity to be influenced by people and information that you encounter while you're not thinking about the problem. Famous story, right, about Archimedes, who had to, he's the one who discovered the law of displacement. He had to measure the volume of a crown and and the crown had an odd shape so there wasn't a formula. And he couldn't find a solution. He couldn't find a solution. Walked away from the problem. Stepped into the bath. Saw the water level rise. The water sloshed over the edge of the bath. And as legend had it, he ran out of the bath house screaming, "Eureka!" Naked, of course. I don't recommend that last bit, but, but you know, what's important about that story is he wasn't actively working on the problem at the time. Now, he had probably stepped into the bath a thousand times in his life. And the water level had risen a thousand times. But it was only because he was in the context of trying to solve this problem, but not actively working on it, that he was actually in a mindset to receive that piece of information when it was there. And, and that led him to this, this observation that you put something in water and you displaced that water.

Dr. Art Markman:

So getting away from problems actually makes you better cognitively at the stuff you do. And then it makes you better emotionally at the stuff you do, because it gives you a chance to, to rest a little bit, to give you the strength to ignore the little things that are bothering you that ended up bugging you. Gives you a chance to recharge. And, and I'll talk in a little bit about how it also changes your mindset a little bit. It can actually help you to think about the beautiful, wonderful, desirable things in the world, as opposed to all of the threats that are out there, which often dominate our work.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

I love this because by nature, I'm a problem solver. Everywhere I look, I can see opportunities.

Brad Lawson:

I would have put you in the problem causer. I would put you in the problem ...

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Problem causer? I'm a pot stirrer and a troublemaker. I'll take that too.

Dr. Art Markman:

Good! Good problem causers need to be good problem solvers.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

There you go. I like it. I'll take it. But I will say, as I'm listening to this, I'm thinking, you know, my tendency is want to brainstorm, you know. And continue to push and pull and, you know, what questions should I ask to get us to think outside the box? And what you're saying is that might not be the most efficient way to think outside the box.

Dr. Art Markman:

Yeah. I think, I think there are a lot of times where having worked on the problem for awhile, now, you just got to let it sit. Go, go, go for a walk. Go for a run.

Brad Lawson:

Take a shower.

Dr. Art Markman:

Yeah, exactly. Just do something that isn't work. And, and there's lots of your brain is still active. Your brain is that information is changing. You know, it is, it's becoming a little bit more abstract. You're, you're retaining the gist of the problem, but not some of the details you were thinking about.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

Your memory actually has a chance to fade a little bit, you know, pre IMDB when, when you, when you were watching a movie and suddenly you recognize the person in the movie, but you couldn't remember where they were from. Now you just look it up immediately, which is no fun. But before you would, you would puzzle of that. Who was that? What, what, where did I see that person before? And then, and you wouldn't remember it in the moment. And, and then, then you, you know, you'd be taking a walk later, you'd be like, "oh, he was in that movie from eight years ago."

Dr. Art Markman:

 

And, and part of the reason that, that you remember it later is because immediately what happens is you see this person, you recognize them, but you don't remember exactly where. And all what's happened is all of this information is flooded into your brain, but it's, it's, it's all pushing each other aside, right? It's like each thing is competing, be the thing that comes out to say something, but it's also pushing on the competitors. And so nothing actually makes it to the surface to say, this is the movie you saw me in. And so, and so in that moment, you're stuck.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

But when you walk away from the problem, all of that stuff that was competing in memory subsides. It comes down and then the winner is able to sneak back in, basically and say, "no, no, it was me." And you're like, "oh, that's right." So, so sometimes walking away from the problem just allows your, your memory to settle. It gives you an opportunity to redraw out of memory because there is this piece of information that's going to help you to solve the problem. So, so there's just a lot of benefit to, to just getting away and doing something else.

Brad Lawson:

So I think you know, obviously in almost every episode of our podcast, we've this season we've referenced, you know, the, the pandemic that we all have been living through for the last 15 to 16 months. I think one aspect that, you know, beyond the physical ramifications for, for too many Americans even those that have been you know, have not, have not physically gotten sick from the virus. There's been this obviously anxiety that's been induced around, just all of the changes, the uncertainty, the unknown, the fear, you know. What role do you see that downtime plays in addressing kind of that specific aspect of our mental and emotional health?

Dr. Art Markman:

Great question. And, and, and there's, there's two components to this that are important. And the first thing we have to do is to pick apart what is fear, anxiety, and stress? What are they? We know they're emotions, but they're actually a particular type of emotion. They are all emotions that reflect the, the activity of what's called the avoidance motivational system in the brain.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

So your brain has two motivational systems. It's got the approach system, which is the one that goes after those beautiful, wonderful, desirable things in the world. And it's got the avoidance system, which is the thing that guards you against threats and calamities. When you have a calamity out there in the environment, a threat out there in the environment, and you haven't yet successfully escaped it, the avoidance motivations system kicks in to be vigilant for the, to make sure that you, that you are aware of the threats so that it doesn't come and get you. And the reminder you get of that, because that motivational system is buried deep inside the brain, doesn't communicate that well with the rest of the brain.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

The way that motivational system communicates with the rest of the brain is through the feelings you have, the emotions you experience. And the avoidance emotions, the ones that are associated with that activation of the avoidance system, are the emotions of stress and fear and anxiety. So when you're stressed out or you're fearful, or you're anxious, it's because there is something out there you're trying to avoid.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

Now, what can downtime do for you? One thing it can do is to try to, to transition you from the presence of something anxiety provoking to the absence of it. So the, you could keep your your avoidance system active, but calm it down. And so there is downtime that we, that we engage in sometimes where we might meditate a little bit, do some mindfulness exercises, do some relaxation exercises, things like that. What you're doing there is calming down the energy that's associated with the anxiety. So if you are currently kind of paralyzed by anxiety or stress, then doing those kinds of exercises that will calm you down, that's downtime that can be very successful.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

On the positive side, that can enable you to move forward. But on the downside, it doesn't really change your mindset. And so when you ramp up your energy again, you're probably going to continue to experience some level of stress and fear and anxiety. So there's another way to use downtime as well. And that is, that there are a different class of emotions that are associated with the activation of the approach system. So if there's some beautiful, wonderful, desirable thing out there in the world, then if you go after that, you experience emotions of anticipation and excitement. If you achieve a positive thing, you feel joy and happiness and elation.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

And if you don't succeed at going after something really important, you're not anxious. You're sad, dejected. You know, you think about the, about the emotions that a, that a basketball team that loses a game is experiencing on the court. They don't look fearful. They look dejected. So happy, sad, those are the, those are the approach, access emotions.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

So what does that mean? It means that another way to use your downtime is to find something really beautiful, wonderful, and desirable to do. Paint. Play music. Go for a walk in a beautiful place. Hang out with someone that you dearly love. Right? Engage in things that are beautiful, wonderful, and desirable. And what happens is, as a result of those interactions, you shift your mindset towards this approach axes. And one of the things that that enables you to do is to see the world a little bit differently. When you then return to the workplace, suddenly you see some of the other beautiful, wonderful, desirable things that are part of work. That doesn't mean that the calamities gone. It doesn't mean the pandemic is over. It just means that your focus is on some of the other elements of the workplace. And rather than seeing just the threats and just the potential problems, you can also see some of the opportunities and some of the things that you find exciting.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

Now this can take a little bit longer, right? If you only have 10 minutes or even an hour, you're probably not going to do a great job of completely shifting your mindset from avoidance to approach. So that's where just calming yourself, trying to, trying to be calm rather than anxious. Cause that's, that's the avoidance axis - stress, fear, and anxiety or relief, right? That's, that's, that's on the avoidance side. So I can take 10 minutes, an hour, and just calm myself.

Dr. Art Markman:

 

But if I have a little bit more time, and people are going on vacation this summer, taking a vacation that isn't just a, "I want to get away from everything." Because a pure, 'I want to get away from everything' vacation is a calming vacation. You got to do more than that. It's not just, I want to get away from some stuff, but I want to get away from stuff and do something I love to do. I want to swim. I want to hike. I want to go to a soccer game. Or whatever it is, whatever you love to do, go do it and go do a lot of it because it'll take you a couple of days. But after a few days, you will start seeing other really beautiful things around. And that mindset can persist. When you get back to work, you can actually remind yourself, "you know what, I actually, there's a reason why I do this job. Are there things I love about this?" And when you find those, it, it just changes the nature of what you think your work is about.

Brad Lawson:

Well, I love what you just said, and maybe this is where we'll started talking about some practical tips for people is that I think, you know, when I hear initially, when I heard about your research, I literally was thinking, "okay, okay." You know, "two or three weeks of PTO per year, that's where, that's what we're going to talk about." But what you're really talking about is how do we intersperse in our daily life the ability for us to turn off our mind, stop trying to, you know, obsess about the issues that are presenting us, whether they're a work problem, family problem, you know, whatever, whatever it is. And that we have the result of not only reducing our anxiety and stress, which we know have very real physical health implications, but we asked also, could become more creative and be more effective. Is that, is that a summarization of, of what I think you've learned.

Dr. Art Markman:

Yeah. I think that's absolutely right. So you can, you can both feel better about your work and do your work better by using the downtime that you have more effectively, And, and, you know, that's, that's why you have to get away from the work you do. And, you know, the other thing is those other experiences that you have, they, they inform the work you do. So, I mean, it's funny, I play the saxophone in my, in my spare time, which I took up in my mid-thirties, which is a whole other story.

Brad Lawson:

It was last year probably, right?

Dr. Art Markman:

No, sadly, sadly, I've been playing for 20 years now, so you can sort of do the math on this. But but it, it but I, and I love it. In fact, my band just got together to rehearse again for the, for the only the second time since, since the lockdown. But I actually, playing the saxophone is fed back on my, on my professional life. I have a little talk I give on leadership lessons for playing jazz from playing jazz for, for, for being a leader. And it's, you know, and I didn't expect that to happen, but, but sometimes these other things that you do, you know, it turns out your life is continuous, just because when you were in school, you, you, you had to use, you know, the stuff you learned in math class, on the math test. And the stuff you've learned in history class, on the history test. In the rest of your life, everything you do is fair game. So, so the stuff that you do in your downtime becomes part of the knowledge and skills that you have for doing whatever it is you're going to do later. And so, and so when you play some music or, or go on a hike or whatever it is, you, you end up learning things that affect the way that you think about other aspects of your life in ways that you didn't anticipate before. And, and that's great.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

I like it. I love this because for me, I think what people are probably hearing is the downtime isn't taking a nap, you know. And downtime, you didn't unless, maybe you got to take a nap, you can take naps, but it's different. You know, I think for folks. And the other type of downtime, I haven't heard you call out is sit in front of the TV in bed for three hours. I mean, unless it's a show that brings you joy you know, maybe, or a movie or something, but, you know, downtime is really doing something that's going to get, that's going to bring out some joy. It sounds like.

Dr. Art Markman:

Yeah, I think absolutely. You know, I mean there's a time and a place to sit in front of the TV and veg. I mean, you know, if you're very, self-directed all day, then you are really taxing your executive attention capacities. You are driving each thing that you're looking at. And every once in a while, it is nice to have some, something else drive the way that you're thinking. And so cedeing control to a TV show or, or a movie and letting it guide you through whatever experience it wanted to create, you know, that that can be, that can be wonderful.

Dr. Art Markman:

But that, that cannot be your only, or even your primary mode of downtime. It's got to involve the other stuff. And, and, you know, I'm going to put a plug in too for some, for regular exercise, which matters in a lot of ways, but, but probably the most important is we have to remember, we're, we're critters, right? We're we're animals. And, you know, if you spend all day sitting in a chair and worrying about stuff, then that physical body isn't getting any movement and it turns out your brain is part of that physical body. It's not separate from it. And so, you know, the brain health, body health, it's all, it's all of a piece. So, get getting out there and, and it doesn't, you don't have to be a marathoner, right. You know, a good walk will help, you know. Just get out there and move a little bit. Put a, put a pedometer on. Count your steps. Get out there and move a little bit, you know.

Brad Lawson:

Now you are showing your age. What is the pedometer?

Dr. Art Markman:

Even this thing, I got my Garmin watch on that, you know, that's ...

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Yeah, a little more fancy version.

Dr. Art Markman:

It's a pedometer, but you know ...

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Yes, it is. You are exactly right.

Brad Lawson:

Not to plug any brands here, but I have the simpler Garmin, but I love it. So well, this has been really interesting. I think on all of our podcasts, we always end up sharing a little bit of personal information. And I, you know, I'm a trail runner and I, I don't do it just because of the running. If I were to be really efficient, I'd just walk out my front door and, and run around the block. But for me, the process of going to the trail and being in nature, because I have to focus on the rocks and the true tree roots and, you know, focusing on something else that's positive, to your point. I didn't recognize it until you talk about it. I walk away well, way more refreshed than if I would've just run around the block a couple of times. Right. And getting that experience. That's awesome.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

Yeah. And I was, I was gonna say, I'm realizing to this conversation that I use a lot of my downtime ...

Brad Lawson:

To play soccer.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

As uptime, you know. Playing soccer, I can't listen to a podcast while I'm playing soccer, but as I'm thinking about this, I'm thinking, well, I go for a walk, I'm listening to a book or listening to a podcast, or, and I'm thinking it probably need to spend a little bit more time walking and just looking at the trees and, you know, being in "off" versus using more time to learn so I can solve problems. A little more downtime so I'm more efficient through downtime.

Dr. Art Markman:

Yeah. I think that's great.

Brad Lawson:

Well, Dr. Markman, this has been really, really informative and fun conversation. As we close our podcast, we always like to ask our guests, you know, what is, what is it that you've done over the last year, you know, one of the positive sides of the pandemic, if there is a positive side? It's a lot, a lot of people to introduce some new health habits because our life changed. And, and what's, what's something you did other than starting to play the saxophone again with your band.

Dr. Art Markman:

So, you know, it's funny, I, I am a committed exerciser and as soon as it became clear that the gyms were going to close, I actually went out and bought a brand named exercise bike that comes with fitness classes.

Brad Lawson:

Ooh, I wonder what that could be.

Dr. Art Markman:

I wonder what that could be. And I managed to get it before the production delays. Also bought a rowing machine. And so, yeah, I, and a physical bicycle too. And and so, yeah, I, I actually have only missed four workout days since the lockdown.

Brad Lawson:

Wow!

Dr. Art Markman:

And, and you know, so it's been, it's been great. I, you know, I, that for me hopping on the bike or the rowing machine or whatever, was my evening commute. And the workday hop on, hop on something, do an hour of exercise and kind of wash, the wash the workday away.

Brad Lawson:

Well, you've continued a string of, of almost unbroken podcast guests that Susan and I talked to that, you know, the, you make us feel inadequate because I've missed way more than four days over the last year. But I will say like you, like rowing is actually one of my favorite. I own a rowing machine. It's probably my favorite piece of equipment other than my trail running shoes. So we really appreciate your time. This has been awesome. I think hopefully our audience really understands now the role that just taking a break can have on not just our physical health, but our ability to be more effective at whatever it is that's important to us. So thank you very much, and we look forward to talking to you again.

Dr. Art Markman:

Yeah, my pleasure.

Brad Lawson:

Once again, this podcast is sponsored by Bravo Wellness. To learn more about how Bravo Wellness helps employers reduce costs and improve care, and how Bravo helps people live their best life, visit bravowell.com.

Susan Morgan Bailey:

And if you love this episode, click subscribe and tell your friends that Health Is On The Way.

 

Topics: Health Improvement, Podcast

 

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