Work smarter, not harder.
You've heard that phrase before, right?
The idea is very appealing. But if you're like most of us, you've had a hard time putting it into practice.
The problem is this:
It requires a leap of faith. Because you have to first stop working harder in order to let your brain work smarter.
Here are some persuasive arguments to help you convince yourself to do just that:
5 Reasons Why You Should Give Your Brain a Well-Deserved Break
Reason #1: A relaxed brain is a creative brain.
Ah-ha moments. Problem-solving breakthroughs. Creative inspiration. Big-picture perspective. Seeing connections and new possibilities.
These are all products of our right brain.
But according to Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, we can only access the insights of the brain's right hemisphere when we are relaxed and in good moods. (Stress and negative moods induce a kind of mental vigilance that turns our attention to the external world and away from the insights of the right brain.)
And the harder you try to "force" this kind of big-picture, creative thinking, the more elusive it will become.
Note: Imagine has now been taken off the shelves by the publisher, due to accusations that Lehrer self-plagiarized sections of the book and fabricated quotes. However, the research findings cited above are legitimate.
Reason #2: There are limits on your mental RAM.
The "working memory" of your brain's prefrontal cortex is like the RAM on your computer.
It's the place where we temporarily store and work with the ideas, thoughts, and information coming in from the various other parts of our brains.
The brain's capacity is at times astonishing, but there are serious limits on how much we can simultaneously hold in this mental RAM. And if we keep trying to cram more in there, then ultimately we lose some of that as one thought gets displaced by another.
You need time to clear your cache before moving on to your next task.
And for heaven's sake, don't multitask! That's the ultimate way to sabotage your working memory.
Reason #3: Stress reduces your mental RAM.
We've already said there are limits on this key mental resource. (How key? Research shows that up to 60% of general intelligence can be attributed to working memory.)
So why would you want to limit it even further? But as it turns out, that's exactly what stress does.
Both acute and chronic stress impair working memory by changing your brain chemistry and inhibiting the firing of the neurons in your prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for working memory). And high levels of chronic stress can actually cause changes in the architecture of this part of your brain.
Reason #4: Tired brain cells just don't think and learn well.
In his book Power Sleep, psychologist James Maas outlines multiple reasons why sufficient sleep is essential to learning, remembering, problem solving, and performance.
Much of this has to do with the power of REM ("rapid eye movement") sleep, that dream-filled sleep stage when the brain replenishes neurotransmitters and organizes neural networks.
What you need to know here is that most REM sleep occurs between the 6th and 8th hour of sleep. If you're not getting more than six hours of sleep per night, you're sabotaging your brain.
So stop working and get some sleep already!
Reason #5: Peak performance requires balanced energy expenditure.
In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz make a compelling argument that effective energy management (not time management) is the key to high performance and productivity.
One key strategy for managing your energy is to switch up the types of energy you're using throughout the day — mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. If you overuse any one type, you'll become drained and disengaged, which makes you ineffective.
So if you're sitting at your computer and thinking for hours on end, or spending all day in meetings, it's a recipe for exhaustion and poor productivity.
For office workers and others in sitting-intensive professions, a key type of energy we miss out on during the day is physical energy.
This is particularly sad because it turns out that cardiovascular exercise promotes learning, enhances memory, and can prevent (and possibly even reverse) cognitive deficits by stimulating the growth of new neurons and neural connections.
And on top of this, exercise also has a powerful effect on mood; in one research study it was as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. And since we know that good moods help with creative, big-picture thinking (see Reason #1), it's clear this is an important thing to do for ourselves.
A Call to Action
I have to be honest: this is one I've struggled with over the years.
For me, anxiety is like a little devil sitting on my shoulder telling me to work harder, faster, longer.
But unfailingly I find that stopping is the best, most productive thing I can do for myself when I hit a wall. (And the above evidence backs me up on this.)
So join me in this campaign?
Leave a comment below letting me know what steps you plan to take, and maybe you'll see your ideas incorporated in my next post which will feature strategies for putting all this into action. (Today was the "why", next time we'll look at the "how".)
Meanwhile, get some rest, ok? :)