The Heretic’s Guide to Getting More Done
March 29, 2014 Editor 0
Are you working endlessly but not accomplishing all you want? Mystified that continuous attention to work is not resulting in satisfactory progress toward your goals? So focused on work that you’re not thinking about or doing much else? If so, you may not be giving your brain the benefit of adequate downtime. A recent article in Scientific American, Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, summarizes the evidence that “mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity.”
How can hard-working business leaders get the downtime they need? In my executive coaching practice, I help clients reach peak performance by actually doing less work at key times—and by engaging in downtime activities that cutting-edge research shows to be effective in boosting productivity.
Here are five tips for getting downtime so that you can perform better than ever:
DAYDREAM AS OFTEN AS YOU WANT. Letting your mind wander has significant benefits. Neuroscience research on the brain’s default mode network reveals that the brain is active and productive during states of daydreaming and mind wandering. In an article entitled Rest is Not Idleness, researchers describe evidence that a robust default mode network enhances perception, attention, and cognition. They argue that “constructive internal reflection”— the term they coin for daydreaming and related “rest” states—is essential for learning, problem solving, and goal setting. This may help to explain why some of our best ideas come when we’re in the shower, not sitting at a computer. We can create that shower effect in the workplace by intentionally paying less attention to work and letting our minds wander wherever they please.
STOP PREPARING FOR MEETINGS AND PRESENTATIONS. Evidence that brain rest is beneficial should have practical implications for how we work. Many of my clients focus intensively (or obsessively) on meetings and presentations they believe can make or break their careers. Drawing on accumulating downtime research, I encourage them to spend less time attending to details of what they’re going to say or put on PowerPoint slides. Instead, I coach them to think about almost anything else as the meeting or presentation approaches. A senior biotech executive in my practice was initially wary of this advice, as he had always entered fits of anxiety as presentations to his executive team approached. When he began to pay less attention to upcoming presentations, his performance improved. And then he gave the presentation of a lifetime—one that was so powerful that it led to a major promotion and to a company-wide shift in how these kinds of presentations are made by everyone across the firm.
SPEND LESS TIME ON KEY DECISIONS.Research shows that we make sounder decisions when we analyze less and empower our subconscious minds to do the heavy lifting. A 2006 study compared two groups of 40 people who were asked to make a decision about the optimal car to purchase based on specs of several different vehicles. One group spent 4 minutes concentrating exclusively on the task, while the other group spent 4 minutes with the specs while also distracted by solving anagrams. The distracted group made the wiser choices. The researchers observed that “it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing.” As long as the distracting task isn’t too complex, a “deliberation-without-attention” approach can be extremely effective. Always having a crossword puzzle, People magazine, Sudoko book, or other enjoyable distraction nearby can be surprisingly valuable.
BE MORE “MINDFUL” THAN FOCUSED. Research on daydreaming and distractions should prompt us to build such “mindfulness” activities into our work lives. How is that possible? Most of my clients can’t break away from the office and go to a yoga or meditation studio during the workday. But with coaching (plus disciplined practice on their own), they can make real progress in this area. Many of my clients, for example, benefit from periods of rhythmic, controlled breathing for short durations (even a minute or two) while at work. I encourage them to pay close attention to their breathing, purposely slow their respiratory rate, and take deeper and longer breaths. This is a form of “biofeedback,” which research shows is an effective self-management tool in high-stress workplaces. Another mindfulness strategy is to have a “mantra,” a word or phrase that can foster a meditative state, diminish stress, and foster creativity by giving the brain the rest it craves.
SHORTEN YOUR WORKDAY. Research shows that top performers only work for stretches of 5 hours or less, taking restorative breaks at least every hour. Some employers recognize this fact and give employees adequate time away from narrowly focused work tasks (more should follow suit). In my coaching practice, I work with clients on rigorous “behavioral scheduling” of essential work and non-work tasks, so that they can obtain appropriate downtime. When this approach does not suffice, sometimes I advise my clients to take part or all of a workday off periodically. Under some circumstances, even a sick day may be justified to give the brain some rest. Most of us should reduce our time at work in order to work more effectively.
Compelling new research reveals that “less is more” for human brains—and that mental downtime should be among our highest priorities. If you aren’t making progress on that to-do list or performing up to the level you need to, just give it a rest.
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