Having been brought up with an Anglo-Saxon work ethic I had always believed that the only way to get anywhere in the world was to work hard, and then work some more. However the brain science has shown this to be counterproductive when taken too far and for many of us especially those running their own businesses, it’s a battle to stop working too hard when faced with stiff competition, poor returns and a need to earn enough to pay the bills.
Working hard as a veterinary surgeon was the way my Dad operated his whole life. He built a very successful practice, enjoyed a good reputation and was known for his for hard work, honesty and fairness.
The downside was as kids we didn’t see much of Dad. He was up and out often as we were heading off to school. His working day began with morning surgery followed by a theatre list before a communal lunch with his assistants. Afternoon surgery at 2pm was followed by home visits that allowed for a quick pit stop for tea at 5pm before heading back for the evening surgery finishing around 9pm.
The only regular Dad time we got was an hours walk on a Sunday afternoon – more to get us out of the house and Mum’s hair than anything else.
Other than the annual two-week family holiday in Spain, he never switched off, his mind constantly concerned with the welfare of his patients and clients.
It’s a fine line between loving your work and letting it take over your life at the expense of your family and relationships.
It’s not only our health and relationships that can suffer it’s our cognition and productivity too.
Studies have shown that working beyond 50 hours a week is counterproductive to our efficiency and productivity. There is nothing to be gained except growing fatigue and the increased risk of exhaustion, burnout or mental illness.
As lives and work continue to get busier, more complex and complicated it’s becoming increasingly important to our brain health to know how and when to switch off.
Give yourself permission to stop.
Taking a regular break from work starts by choosing not to “catch- up” on the weekends or every evening. What isn’t completed by the end of Friday afternoon can usually wait until Monday. Filling your weekend with work related activities denies your brain the down time it needs to uncouple from focus and reconnect with family, friends and activities that provide you the ability to relax, have some fun and be refreshed and re-energised for the next week.
Take a digital detox.
Our smart phones are a blessing and a curse. Bombarded with incoming data our brains are quickly overloaded making it harder to think straight, or to think about other possibly more interesting things.
Our propensity for diligence, attempting to complete our never-ending to-do lists and wishing to succeed have produced the FOMO (fear of missing out) so we remain hyper vigilant and alert to what’s needed next, forgetting that downtime needs to be included too.
I was recently asked by a client to address this problem with their cohort of managers. The problem being these high performers were struggling to disconnect from their work after hours to the level it was affecting their productivity, performance at work and importantly their relationships at home.
Switching off starts by giving yourself permission to do so and determine when that should be and what it entails.
It could be something as simple as setting a time to switch the phone to silent, close down the computer and abide by that rule. This is notonly good for your brain’s health and function, it will help restore a better sleep pattern.
Studies have shown that taking regular time offline feels good, some even describe it as liberating – freeing up the mind for greater creativity, imagination and insight.
Digital free vacations where there is no access to the Internet or Wi-Fi (that wonderful almost guilty pleasure of not being contactable) is as great as enjoying some really good high quality chocolate.
Have you ever noticed that your breathing can become more shallow or that you’re holding your breath when you’re feeling a bit anxious or stressed?
The problem is this type of breathing is unhelpful to our ability to focus well and think.
This is where taking a couple of slow breaths that focus on a longer outbreath can have very beneficial effects to reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure and boost cognition.
Meditation, mindfulness and yoga practices that focus on the breath have been practiced for thousands of years. Recent research has revealed how the relationship of breathing and the brain alters the production of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline associated with your ability to maintain alertness, attention and curiosity. So keep breathing, mindfully.
Sleep on it.
The best cognitive refresher on the market is sleep. It’s readily available, doesn’t cost anything and is the single most effective way to boost productivity and performance. But don’t accept any old sleep, it pays to go for the top quality uninterrupted variety every time for the biggest gains in mental clarity, decision-making and faster problem solving.
Going Gold Class every night avoids daytime foggy thinking, reduces mistakes and the risk of creating false memories.
Sitting disease is a modern affliction as our work has moved from physical labour to being more sedentary. If the thought of being at increased risk of varicose veins, hemorrhoids and bowel cancer doesn’t thrill you (and that’s just for starters) increasing the level of physical activity across your day can make a real difference to your mood, memory and cognition.
The act of standing increases your level of attention. We think better on our feet so why not try standing meetings that keep everyone on their toes, more engaged and hopefully more effective too.
Feeling productive, knowing you’ve achieved what you set out to do is enormously rewarding. That extra zoosh of dopamine feels great and motivates you to “Play it again Sam”.
If that feeling is currently missing in action, remember the best way to boost your productivity and mental performance is to give your brain a break.
That’s smarter thinking by design.