The problems with overscheduling yourself are pretty self-evident: You’re stressed. You’re exhausted. You don’t have any time to do all the fun stuff you want to do. For that matter, you also don’t have any time to just veg out and do nothing at all.
But your never-ending busyness may also be holding you back in another, sneakier way. As psychologist Emma Seppälä, the author of The Happiness Track and the science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, recently wrote in Quartz, unstructured downtime is when you’re at your most creative.
“Simply put, creativity happens when your mind is unfocused, daydreaming or idle,” she wrote. “If our minds are constantly processing information, we never get a chance to let our thoughts roam and our imagination drift.” You’ve probably already figured this out from just living your life — how often have you had a sudden insight while zoning out on your commute, or in the shower, or otherwise just staring into space? — but research backs it up, too. One study, published in 2014 in the Annual Review of Psychology, found that letting your mind wander can boost creative thinking; other studies have shown that taking walks and playing games can have the same effect.
If you want to get the creative juices flowing, then, “be less busy” is the obvious answer — and also an annoyingly unattainable one. (After all, if you could just knock things off your to-do list to make time for a jaunt around the block, wouldn’t you be doing that already?) But even mini-breaks throughout the day can help you stave off some of the imagination-sucking powers of a jam-packed schedule. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has explained to Science of Us, balancing mentally demanding activities with more mindless ones can help keep you refreshed. And bonus points if you can schedule those breaks ahead of time — because they’re more effective that way, yes, but also to make sure you actually take them. If you’re the type who gets anxious when you’re not getting things done, think of it as a long-term investment: Giving your brain a rest is just as important as putting it to work.