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Why Wasting Time On Useless Stuff Is Important to Your Health

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Mindfulness is having a moment, and with a list of benefits that reads like the Holy Grail of health (eases anxiety, chronic pain, stress!), it's not hard to see why. But with so much focus on, well, staying focused, enjoying a little bit of mindless downtime—scrolling through Instagram, getting lost in your Netflix queue, spacing out to online cat videos—feels like a dirty little secret. Because that kind of stuff? It's basically ruining your life, at least according to every click-baity headline.

But here's something to think about: Does zoning out have benefits, too?

Experts say yes, and they've dubbed those times when you unconsciously space out mind wandering. "There is value in periodically letting your mind off the hook ... allowing yourself to have those moments when you ease up and allow the brain to sort of leave the here and now," says Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D., a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Whew! Now you can shamelessly own up to the fact that you've been searching for the perfect emoji to send to your friend for the last five minutes, not looking for a meditation on Headspace.

So exactly why is spacing out so beneficial?

It gives you a refresher.

"Some people believe that mental stimulation is an unlimited resource," Schooler says. "But there is research that shows if you have a task, and rather than do it continuously, you take breaks, you actually learn more. So I believe there is a benefit to letting the mind play and wander, even if it's just for five minutes. You'll come back with a fresh perspective."

But stay with us for a second. Giving your brain a breather doesn't mean spending every weekend binge watching The Real Housewives or obsessively checking social media every second. "Even just a five-minute break is useful," Schooler says. Ideally, you'd let your brain idle while taking a walk through nature or listening to relaxing music, but any positive nondemanding task is okay, he adds.

It inspires creativity.

The daily grind doesn't really give you a chance to percolate on problems, or the opportunity to step back and gain perspective, Schooler says. Life can become repetitive. Think about it: If your boss asks you to come up with a solution to a problem, you'll likely go with whatever reactionary answer comes to mind. But a little chill time gives your brain a chance to use different regions, and it may kick up new ideas and thoughts.

That doesn't mean you should be drifting out into a daydream in the middle of a sales meeting—that's the time to practice a little bit of mindfulness.

It puts your goals in focus.

One study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that when your mind isn't "on" and you give your brain a break, it naturally starts thinking about the future. Here you thought you were wasting time, but even in your zombie-eyed state, your brain was taking stock of your five-year plan.

It alleviates boredom.

To be real, some situations just aren't that pleasant and are more enjoyable when you're off in your own world. "Mind wandering can be wonderful during your work commute, when you're waiting in line or even cleaning the toilet," says Ellen Hendrikson, Ph.D., a psychologist in Cambridge, MA. "Allowing your mind to not stay engaged all of the time is actually a gift. The brain has the ability to look forward or back in time, which allows us to reminisce, plan, and look forward in happy anticipation."

Plus one for those cat videos.

 

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