What Happens at 3pm at My Place


I’ve been anxiously editing this newsletter all week.

The story starts with a book. Over the holidays, I picked up a copy of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less Hard by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Many parts shook me up, but the one that made me stop everything was when he wrote about the DMN, the Default Mode Network.

I’ll probably butcher this, but here we go. In the early 1990’s, a grad student was studying FMRI scans. These are brain scans that collect information in real time, so that scientists can see what’s going on when we’re doing stuff.

The student found this weird thing; when people phased out, a whole new part of the brain lit up brilliantly like a secret room suddenly flooded with activity. He could not figure this out and finally started to wonder if actually, when we’re resting, our brain is working in a whole different (and possibly very important) way. His colleagues didn’t buy it — work is work, rest is rest. They told him he’d ruin his career if he published it.

Buuut, over at Washington University, a fancy professor came to the same conclusion. He was studying people’s brains while they were reading using similar scans and found that as SOON as they stopped reading, something new happened, something huge and complicated that they had no name for.

So, the duders got together and named it the DMN, Default Mode Network. This is the beautiful, complicated web of connection and productivity that happens when we’re not actively working, but instead are, say, staring out the window or washing dishes or walking a familiar street.

Here’s where it gets really interesting — they figured out that people who are highly creative have way more complex DMNs, meaning that our brains are doing a lot even when we’re resting. And, that DMN complexity is linked to empathy, decision making, emotional intelligence and all kinds of other important life skills.

This told me something startling — our brains need to phase out. They feed on phasing out. Especially when we want those brains to be creative.

You may know this about me, but I’m extremely attached to being productive. I love a day of good work. I’m sad about the world and motivated to do my best by it. I feel that this is an essential part of who I am.

But this research made me wonder if that drive to strike the most things off my to-do list every day was muddying my brain, making it harder to make good choices, see other’s people’s opinions and, of course… to write.

I also started wonder whether my drive for productivity isn’t tied to my essential nature, but to living in the 21st Century and owning a smartphone. These days the pressure to be connected is unreal. You know this. The internet is changing the pace of our lives in a way we don’t even understand. Our ancestors didn’t need scientific studies to tell them to phase out, because they had plenty of time doing repetitive chores or walking long distances or just not looking at computers.

Now, every molecule of my ego is begging me not to tell you this next part. But here we go. This winter I’m trying an experiment; I’m scheduling an hour of pure, undisturbed phase-out time into the middle of every workday.

Here’s how it works: I come home around 3 pm. I change into flannel pyjamas, close the blinds and let the dog up on the bed. (See photo above. That was Wednesday.) I lie down. That’s all. Sometimes I sleep (the book has an equally-amazing chapter on naps) other times I just pet Marshall and let my mind wander. No phone, no books, no podcasts. Just me, in the room, doing nothing.

I freakin’ love it. It’s like being allowed to devour fourteen ice cream sundaes while lying on a beach getting a foot massage. I feel the hour all day long. I’m more patient, less tense, and I’m writing WAY MORE — getting ideas for stories in the middle of conversations, staring at words in wonder at how beautiful they are. I’m feeling, again, like the world is a constant stream of creative possibility. It feels so good to be back.

Truth: Aaaaall I can hear in my head right now is your judgment. Who does she think she is? She’s clearly showing off. How entitled can you be? I’ve edited and re-edited this, deleted it all, written it again. I feel like I’m confessing to something awful. That’s how hard for me to say that time rest is valid, real and worth talking about. I suspect I’m not alone. I suspect that’s part of why we’re all so tired.

I recognize that my 3 pm tryst is a product of my privilege. If I were working a double shift at Wendy’s, no one would be giving me an hour off for idle time in the middle. And it hurts my heart to recognize that.

But, there are millions of ways to lean in. Whether it means not turning on the news while commuting or not checking email on lunch break or just not feeling guilty for the DMN time your brain is naturally claiming when you find yourself scrolling through Instagram photos without thinking, there’s always ways to make friends with idle time, and to claim it as part of your creative practice, your brain health, your well-lived life.

Writing isn’t just about putting words down, it’s about cultivating a climate where those words appear, asking to be written. At Firefly we’re always looking for new ways to do that for ourselves and our community. How do we care for the soil so that the flowers leap out of the ground? There are a million little methods, but this is my current favourite.

Thank you for reading. I hope you’ll join me. But, you know… On your own. Not at my place. Even though I’m sure you’d be great company. Marshall isn’t really that friendly. And anyway. You get it.

Chris Fraser