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Matthew B. James, Ph.D. Headshot

Not Enough Zzzs? Reboot Your Brain

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It's no wonder many people feel low energy, tired and sleep-deprived considering the pace of life and work today.

I am old enough to remember a time when my dad would come home and say, "I have the day off today," and that meant he literally had the day off -- we'd get to hang out with no interruptions. The interruptions began with pagers. I remember my dad getting one of the very first pagers. We were out having father-son time and his pager went off. It was a client with an emergency so of course he had to go handle it.

That was back in the early 80s. Fast forward to now. We live in the world of the PDA (personal digital assistant). With all the gadgets we have we are expected to be "on" all the time.

I have had people email me after 24 hours and say, "I don't know if you got my email because I didn't get a response. You usually respond within 24 hours." I politely emailed them back saying, "I promised my kids to give them a day off because I've been gone for 55 days training." One person literally responded: "How are you able to do that?" It was like they could not comprehend taking a full day off.

Compound this with the fact that the idea of a real vacation, a day or week off, is now a complete dinosaur. It's extinct. On my last vacation, I still answered emails. I still had a conference call and so did my wife. Your life is probably the same way.

We think we're getting more done, but what we're actually doing is we're keeping the computers -- our brains -- on all the time. Rather than taking the time to reboot them, we just keep going. The result: our productivity goes down. And it is taking a toll on our health. If you feel rundown, your immune system probably is, making you more at risk to get sick. We're just not giving ourselves any down time. So what is the answer?

Smokers have for years taken short breaks to go outside and smoke. I am not advocating smoking, but there are proven benefits to taking short breaks. Have you ever considered taking an air break? How about a meditation break?

At Kona University we've set up certain times when it's okay for all employees to go outside and take a break. I do it too, because I know how even short yet real breaks can refresh and recharge. Here are some ideas for rebooting your brain:

Take an Air Break: Every 90 minutes take the time to step outside and take a real break for 10 or 15 minutes. If you can't go outside because of the weather or other factors, try staring out the window or at a calming picture. Take long breaths through your nose and out your mouth with a gentle "ha" sound. It does not have to be perfectly timed -- you can do it at any time -- but there is a scientific reason for aiming for every 90 minutes.

Go deep: The goal is to switch your brain for a few minutes from the busy beta wave state to an alpha wave state, the state that precedes sleep. Alpha is that dreamlike state when you're staring out the window and daydreaming. When we sleep we go into this state on average every 90 minutes. This allows the body to slow down and the brain to regenerate.

Long-term studies on sleep habits have found that 7 to 7 1/2 hours is the best amount of sleep for an adult because that gives you five 90-minute cycles on average. During these cycles we drop into delta, the deepest sleep that invigorates and refreshes the body. When we are awake, our brains also cycle from beta into alpha roughly every 90 minutes. But in our fast-paced go-go-go world, we fight going into alpha, often by grabbing an energy drink, another cup of coffee or a chocolate bar. Anyone who fights going into alpha is going to eventually have their brain crash. It's like a computer slowing down. One of the first things that the technician tells you to do is reboot the computer. Every 90 minutes, your body is seeking a gentle reboot. And it only takes 10-15 minutes.

Light meditation: Hakalau is a light meditation suited for these 15-minute breaks. This is a form of meditation from the ancient Hawaiian Huna system called "the walking meditation of the Kahuna" because the Kahuna who practiced it were able to walk around and function while remaining in the state. There are five steps to this form of meditation:

  1. Ho'ohaka: Just pick a spot on the wall to look at, preferably above eye level, so that your field of vision seems to bump up against your eyebrows, but not so high as to cut off the field of vision.
  2. Ku'u: "To let go." As you stare at this spot, just let your mind go loose, and focus all of your attention on the spot.
  3. Lau: "To spread out." Notice that within a matter of moments, your vision begins to spread out, and you see more in the peripheral than you do in the central part of your vision.
  4. Hakalau: Now, pay attention to the peripheral. In fact, pay more attention to the peripheral than to the central part of your vision.
  5. Ho'okohi: Stay in this state for as long as you can. Notice how it feels.

Deep meditation: If you have an office or a space you can make quiet and can close your eyes, you can do a 15-minute deep meditation. This is going into a deep alpha state without going to sleep. The form of this meditation we teach from Huna is called Hiolani, also called the sitting meditation of the Kahuna. "Hio" is "to lean, "lani" is "heavens." People in the islands use the term Hiolani to express the phrase "to lean upon the heavens." The Hiolani meditation requires you to be as comfortable as you can and to remain awake -- this can be the hard part! You can also achieve this state through self-hypnosis. A 15-minute meditation that is deep enough can be the rest equivalent of 1.5 hours of sleep.

The techniques described above can be very helpful for restoring your energy but should not be used as a substitute for sleep. Remember also that every so often you need to take a true day off. Pick a day and let people know you won't be answering emails or phone calls. Spend that time doing what you love most. Then you can think about those moments the next time you take your 15-minute breaks at work. You really can reboot your brain.