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Article | Relax! You will be productive.

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We, people of the Land of Passion-Driven, know that we cannot afford to slow down. Your time is now. You got to hustle and bustle, give it your 101% and look i-woke-up-like-this fabulous. You should also work less and preferably four days a week, spend time on passion projects and meditate to be a successful business person.

With all the contradicting advice we settle on chasing the dream 24/7 and say ‘I can’t, I am too busy’ proudly when somebody asks us out for lunch. We think we need a six-figure salary to start taking vacations. Even sleep becomes a matter of choice, rather than necessity. This is how many of us board the train headed to station Burnout Central calling at Anxiety, Depression, and Self-Doubt. Instead of making an impact, we sabotage our performance.

In this article, we are letting you in on the secrets of a happy and fulfilled life as a successful entrepreneur supported by scientific data and research. Hint: it has a lot to do with taking it easy.

Sleep more

Sleep is an often underestimated life function by those, who have more to gain by staying up. Or have they?

Arianna Huffington, the author of the upcoming book The Sleep Revolution, wrote that “We sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity, but ironically our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we spend at work, adds up to 11 days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280.” Essentially, you are losing money by not sleeping enough!

Moreover, you aren’t suffering from financial losses only by neglecting to sleep – your overall performance decreases too. Daniel Levitin states in his book ‘The Organized Mind‘ that ’sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example, going to bed late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterwards.’ It means that you are doing yourself a disservice if you continue skipping night rest. In fact, you should start adding power naps to your daily routine because ‘even five- or ten-minute “power naps” yield significant cognitive enhancement, improvement in memory, and increased productivity. And the more intellectual the work, the greater the payoff. Naps also allow for the recalibration of our emotional equilibrium—after being exposed to angry and frightening stimuli, a nap can turn around negative emotions and increase happiness.’ (Daniel Levitin, the same book).

Action: Start by prioritising your optimal 6-8 hours of sleep per night for 30 days, which is how long it takes to build a habit. This will also force you to be more task-focused during the day but only if you are ruthless with sticking to your resolution. Tip: be extremely ruthless.

Get distracted at the right time

Are you 100% focused on this article or longingly looking out of the window, listening in on other people’s conversations, thinking about dinner and that pair of shoes you saw yesterday? Mental unavailability at times when you are supposed to be focused can seriously obstruct your work, but not many people know that letting yourself be distracted is an amazingly effective creativity boost. The trick is to be distracted at the right time.

Some experts say that people tune things out for good reasons, and that over time boredom becomes a tool for sorting information—an increasingly sensitive spam filter. In various fields including neuroscience and education, research suggests that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive” (Source). 

Action: Practice doing nothing and let your mind roam – ironically planned time slots of being distracted freely are much healthier for your brain than directionless thinking during work times. Use apps such as Calm to meditate and focus on your breath. You can also schedule thought dumps a couple of times per day – simply write (or record) whatever is on your mind without thinking about it too much.

Space out your workload

Our brains can maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes at a time. If you work continuously for three hours straight, you put yourself in danger of fatigue. In Meijman’s view, ‘fatigue’ is a psychophysiological state that is characterized by a low level of energy, a high level of irritability and a lack of motivation to exert any further effort (Meijman, T. F., 1991, About fatigue). This basically means you are unconsciously sabotaging your efforts and the quality of your work life. Fast Company brings up the widely cited study of prodigious violinists by psychologist Anders Ericsson. He found that the top performers all had the same practice characteristics:

  • They practiced in the morning
  • They practiced for three sessions
  • Each sessions was 90 minutes or less
  • There was a break between each session

Action: Follow your work periods with 20 minutes of complete reset- get up from your desk, eat lunch outside of your office, do not talk about work. You can set alarms on your phone to remind you when the break should start and end.

Learn how to simply be

In our society, it’s natural to value people, who excel. It’s an automatic reaction to praise an employee for leaving the office last or admiring those, who buzz from event to event. This causes a dissonance between those who do what comes naturally to them and the people, who haven’t figured out their natural affinities or are forcing themselves to do what they are not cut out for. We are adding extra projects trying to figure ourselves out instead of polishing what we are good at but too scared to pursue. A recently published book by Professor Svend Brinkmann from the Department of Communication and Psychology at Aalborg University Denmark opposes the idea that everybody has to be undergoing a soul-searching self-improvement process, which is enforced by cheap self-help books. The end result of believing to be a ‘work in progress’ is a constant feeling of unworthiness which drives us to work tirelessly and justify not taking a break ‘because we have to do better than that’.

Action: Say no to projects, which you are doing for reasons other than making you happy. These are energy drainers, which require more time and effort to maintain. Realistically, can you outsource/delegate/skip them?

Stop checking your phone

The heaviest smartphone users click, tap or swipe on their phone 5,427 times a day, with 2,617 times being a daily average (source). This amounts to 145 minutes per day. While not every interaction you have with your phone is needless, plenty of people habitually use their phones at work and home, not letting their brains take the needed break to process information. What’s worse, you can literally max out your brain’s capacity to memorise information by overusing technology! ‘When we attempt to stuff more information in the working memory, our capacity for processing information begins to fail’ (source). Not to mention becoming emotionally unstable:

Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. (source)

Action: Mute and put away your phone when resting. Use tools like StayFocused to limit visiting social media sites. Use Offtime to create tech-free zones by strategically scheduling automatic airplane modes.

Go offline regularly

David Solomon, the global co-head of investment banking at Goldman, told James Surowecki in this NYT piece (source) “Today, technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.” While being able to go online almost everywhere is a technological miracle, it brought in disorders such as FOMO or FOBO, anxieties, amplifying your exposure to content you might now want to see all day long. Design a robust internal and external recovery systems.

‘Internal recovery refers to the shorter periods of relaxation that take place within the frames of the workday or the work setting (Geurts & Sonnentag,2006; Veldhoven & Sluiter, 2010) in the form of shortscheduled or unscheduled breaks, by shifting attention or changing to other work tasks when the mental or physical resources required for the initial task are temporary depleted or exhausted. External recovery refers to recovery promoting actions that take place off work — e.g. in the free time between the work days,and during weekends, public holidays or vacations’ (source)

Action: Plan one day a week when you will go completely offline, no excuses. Catch up on things that make you happy and come back to your workload the next day.

This article was written for the Impact Hub Vienna blog and published on the 28th of February, 2017. Access it online here.