Get More Done With This One Surprising Trick

Our culture has become one of compulsive overworking. Many of us are tired of rushing through our days only to come home at night, exhausted and burned out. 

Between work demands, family, phone, emails and rush hour traffic, we barely have a moment to pause, let alone breathe. The story of a 21-year-old Merrill Lynch employee who appears to have worked himself to death after 72 hours in the office is just one extreme example.

We have learned that a “successful” person outcompetes, outperforms, surpasses. A “successful” person is running, all the time. Past the pain, past the limits towards a finishing line that is ever changing and moving. Satisfaction doesn’t come or, when a goal is attained it may appear for a moment but doesn’t last very long because the finish line keeps moving. If we fall into this trap, we find ourselves working to the bone, are somewhat (or very) anxious, and sacrifice our personal time- even our health and family – all in the name of performance and achievement. The truth is that most people are overextended. And there’s a fear that if you aren’t overdoing it then, then you won’t keep up with the demands.

Research clearly shows the impacts of the stress of overworking: exhaustion, irritation, weakened digestion and immunity, an inability to disconnect from work thoughts, and a deterioration in self-control when it comes to things like food intake, an exercise regimen, proper sleep habits and alcohol consumption.

To make things worse, aside from all the mental and physical health problems that can ensue from overworking and chronic stress, research shows this lifestyle often doesn’t work! Former Harvard Psychology professor Dan Wegner coined the term ironic processes to describe the failure of excess discipline. In particular, he showed that extreme control and focus on one goal often leads to failure or backlash much like the binge after the diet. Roy Baumeister’s research shows that too much self-discipline is taxing and, over time, actually leads to willpower fatigue. According to a line of research, too much focus can actually hurt our creative problem-solving skills.

Is there a way to disrupt the “busy” paradigm of our life since it ironically seems to break us down as it moves us up? Well actually YES, there is. Research suggests a very unexpected way to disrupt this pattern and it’s not what you think.

Do Nothing.

For most people (and especially overachievers), the idea of “doing nothing” or stopping to smell the flowers can sound laughable and not only wildly unproductive but even completely counterproductive. Wrong! Of course, if living an extreme lifestyle is working for you, then by all means continue. However, if, like the rest of us, you long for more time to spend on things you used to love (poetry, movies, hulahooping, bird watching, your family), then you’re in luck because doing so may actually help you be more productive (and probably healthier too).

Think about it: When do you get moments of insight or creativity?

It is in the shower, on a hike or while driving or relaxing in some other way. Things seem to somehow just “click” in our minds– we have an “AHA” moment. The trick to self-mastery actually lies in the opposite of control: effortlessness, relaxation and well-being. Control is fatiguing, while brain-imaging research shows that relaxation is not only restorative, but actually leads enhanced memory and facilitated intellectual understanding.

Another brain imaging study found that “AHA” moments that provide sudden insight into a problem  (e.g., finding the solution to a complex work question) were often preceded by enhanced alpha waves in the brain — i.e. a sign of relaxation. In fact, UC Santa Barbara researcher Jonathan Schooler discovered that daydreaming and mind-wandering may lead to greater creativity and enhanced problem solving.

Another fascinating study by Marieke showed that we are at our most creative when we are sleepy (in the evening for morning people and in the morning for night owls!) — the reason may be that we are more relaxed in those moments.

Finally, brain imaging research by Norman Farb of the University of Toronto has determined that our brain has specific pathways dedicated to internally directed attention — they help us become more calm, slow our racing thoughts and ultimately have greater insight into ourselves. It’s important that the brain has had time to relax, restore and reflect.

A side effect of taking time for ourselves, taking a step away from work, and chilling out is often positive mood, which research shows also leads to greater insight and better problem solving. Another reason to play more, which studies indicate benefits both health, creativity and our ability to think outside the box.

Maybe that’s why everyone’s getting into meditation.

It’s a pretty good idea to clear your desktop, empty your trash or clear out your email but we sometimes forget to do the same thing with our mind. Research on meditation in healthy and clinical populations is growing as are evidence of its benefits (e.g. this paper) and the data (see a quick summary with links to studies here) shows that it leads to lower stress, enhanced well-being, better cognitive skills (memory and attention) and — in one study even improvements in multi-tasking. We understand that resting the body (i.e. sleep) is important, but often forget that it’s equally important to rest the mind. It’s a chance to unwind our mind and loosen up our thoughts.

Take-Aways

  • Want to be more productive? Make time to NOT be productive and just chill.
  • Prioritize fun as much as you prioritize your to-do list and your to-do list will get done!
  • Find time to wind down, relax, do unimportant things, unplug from work. You spend lots of time at work focusing.Learn to un-focus.
  • Meditate. And perhaps choose a style that is not a “focused” style. Research suggests unfocused meditations have advantage over focused ones.
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