Guest Post: The Intersection of Self-care and Achievement

The secret to maximizing energy, time, and productivity. A Series.

By Colleen Hallinan

It’s not intuitive, but spending less time in what you consider “work” mode, and more time in some kind of “rest,” actually increases the efficiency and value of your work productivity over time. We’ll explain the nerdy connection and challenge you with a new routine in a couple minutes.

On the surface, “spending less time working” might not pass muster in the traditional office environment where you are expected to work, at minimum, 8 hours in a day. But for decades studies have estimated we don’t actually “work” anywhere near that amount of time.  A recent (not entirely scientific) study showed the average Brit office worker’s actual work time is closer to 2 to 3 hours.  These are Brits though, so in addition to, like us, checking social media, reading news websites and discussing non-work activities with colleagues, they spend an awful lot of time making tea!  And, in any country, especially since Covid, one could easily add to the list doing things like laundry, walking the dog, or dealing with children.

Whether or not you can identify with any of these distractions, if you’re honest with yourself, you know that throughout the day, at a minimum, your mind wanders, your web searches go down black holes, or you turn away to get a snack or a drink.

Embracing Distractions

There is a scientific reason for these and other compulsive distractions, other than the obvious “feed me!” You’re probably familiar with circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycles of wake and sleep.  Ultradian rhythms are physiological patterns that occur several times a day. The most well-known are those we experience during our sleep time, but there are also cycles of peaks and troughs of energy and alertness throughout the day, ranging anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours. The signs that you are reaching a trough can be anything from brain fog to sleepiness to hunger.

Rather than fight them, what if you were to embrace these cycles?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes in Rest that we can begin to embrace these cycles via morning routines, walks, naps, exercise, and deep play. It’s inspiring to read the detailed accounts of how some of the most creative and productive individuals in history (Beethoven, Darwin, Hemingway, Churchill) and present (Stephen King, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler) have maximized their creative and productive output by alternating focused periods of intense work with one of those resting alternatives.

Deliberate Rest

Pang fairly points out there’s much ado about the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that built world-class athletes and performers as laid out in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, yet not much attention to the studies’ findings that world class performers alternated shorter intense periods of practice with deliberate periods of rest, and that top performers slept, on average, one more hour per day than others. In fact, those 10,000 hours of intensity were accompanied by 12,500 hours of deliberate rest and 30,000 hours of sleep.

We’ll cover much more on this topic, along with specific ways to increase your productivity, in subsequent Chronicles. For now, we’ll leave you with the central nerdy connection and your first self-care challenge to increase your productivity in your next week of work.

The Nerdy Connection

Since we’ve been able to measure the activity of different parts of the brain, scientists have found that we have a “default mode network” (DMN) – a part of the brain that revs up nearly as much as our focused work brain when we allow our mind to wander or daydream as one might do while walking the dog or folding laundry. The kicker? The DMN, in the background, continues to work on whatever was challenging you during your focused work time.  It’s the same type of mechanism as when you wake up in the morning with the obvious solution to a problem that plagued you the day before.

The Challenge

Make a list of self-care needs you’ve been neglecting. Maybe it will include getting in your 10,000 daily steps, doing a yoga routine for your back pain, or even reorganizing the dreaded junk drawer that drives you insane.  For the next week or two, split each of your days into 3 chunks of work interspersed with two 30 to 60-minute periods of your self-care.  Allow your DMN to do its thing by focusing on and being present in your activity. The very worst thing that can happen is your back will feel better or you’ll get some extra fresh air. Connect and let us know how it goes!

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