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The Productivity Myth

Why Productivity is Overrated

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I have spent hours reading the latest books on productivity and looking for the next hack. There is so much to do and so little time.

I heard an unpopular twist to productivity on this interview with James Altucher. He said a lion spends most of its time sprawling and sleeping. It only goes in full throttle when it chases prey. It doesn’t hunt continuously. When it’s not hunting, it is not sitting around feeling bad, wondering how it can be more productive and catch more prey at once.

This forced me to re-frame productivity.

Good Rest is as Important as Good Work


Almost all systems in nature teach that work must alternate with rest for a system to perform at its best. I cannot think of a single efficient system that continuously works without a break.

The heart, for example, contracts and relaxes thousands of times each day.

It cannot remain in a continuous state of contraction. It would quickly wear out if it did. Instead, it puts its best effort at contraction, consuming a lot of energy, and then relaxes and rests. During relaxation, blood flows into the heart before it puts its best effort at contacting again.

A heart that cannot relax is just as bad as one that cannot contract well.

Similarly, every 24 hours is divided into day and night.

The variations in light affect our internal body clock, which switches on some systems during the day and shuts down others during the night.

In his bestseller, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker says there are solid biological reasons why we must work when it is day and sleep when it is night.

One of man’s best inventions – the light bulb – changed our relationship with sleep forever. Having lights on meant people could work for as long as they wanted without being forced to stop by darkness. It increased productivity but also threw our sleep-wake cycles upside down.

Work in the day and sleep at night – alternate work and rest.

The word ‘sabbatical’ in sabbatical leave comes from “sabbath”. People on sabbatical leave take a prolonged break off their regular work and turn their focus on something different.

In his TED talk, designer Stefan Sagmeister talks of rethinking our idea of time off. Instead of working hard and waiting for several years of retirement at the end of life, he takes a sabbatical year for every seven years of work and uses the break to do work on projects unrelated to his core work.

He not only comes back with better ideas; he also generates content during this break which will inspire his work in the next 7-year cycle. He talks of top chef, Ferran Adria, whose restaurant closes for five months each year. Adria spends this time experimenting with kitchen staff and coming up with new ideas. His restaurant keeps getting better.

Our Best Ideas Come When We Are Relaxed


Our best ideas do not come when we are in a rush and anxious. Stress switches off creativity and creates a state of inner tension.

My best writing ideas do not come at work when I am in the thick of things dashing from one appointment to the next. My best ideas come during my morning exercise or shower.

If your livelihood depends on creativity, you cannot create good work from a state of tension.

Learning and memory improve with periods of rest which allow the brain to work on and assimilate content. Barbara Oakley, co-creator of Learning How to Learn, explains how when we rest, the brain subconsciously continues to solve problems we grappled with while awake.

Relaxation is what we see when the lion is sprawling and sleeping. It looks like a waste of time – but it is the very thing the lion needs when it has to sprint after its prey.

Rest with Quality

The lines between our rest and work are so blurred we are neither working well nor resting well. It’s not just the quantity of rest that matters, the quality is everything.

If good work was black and good rest was white, what many of us describe as rest is a shade of grey. We don’t rest very well, neither do we work well.

People go to sleep and wake up tired. Or they take a holiday, go to an amazing destination, and come back unrefreshed. A holiday sometimes means relocating work to a different location – continuing to fire out emails and field hectic calls from work during the holiday.

There needs to be a deliberateness about creating meaningful rest just as we are deliberate about meaningful work.

Sharpen the boundaries between work and rest. Invest in good rest.

Among other things, you can:

Respect your bedroom as a vital space where rejuvenation takes place 

 

Create a comfortable and relaxing sleeping environment.

Invest in a good bed, mattress, pillow and beddings if that’s what’s keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep.

Pay attention to the lighting and temperature in your bedroom so they induce sleep at bedtime rather than keep you awake.

Put mobile devices away and stay away from the white light and glare from electronic devices before and during bedtime. Make the room dark, so the body knows it’s time to fall asleep.

Be consistent

Have a regular time for going to bed and waking up.

I decided on maintaining the same times for bedtime and waking up whether it’s a workday, weekend or holiday because my body works better when my pattern is consistent. When I try having two days off and wake up later on the weekend and then try to wake up early on Monday, the system goes off balance .

Avoid carrying work to your bedroom

Avoid being engrossed with your work or hectic conversations just before you go to bed. It will take your mind some time to cool down and settle into sleep.

Skip coffee

Eliminate caffeine if you can, if not cut caffeine intake several hours before your bedtime – for most people this means no caffeine in the afternoons.

Shut down on holiday

Be deliberate about shutting down when you go on a break.

Put your email on auto-reply notifying everyone you are not accessible. Don’t carry work to your holiday.

Have a different phone number on holiday if you must if that helps you get away from nagging calls. Permit yourself to truly rest.

Take frequent breaks

Incorporate several periods of rest in your day, week, month and year.

Fitness and exercise experts recommend interval training as the best route to fitness. Interval training refers to having intense but brief exercise at maximal effort and alternating this with a period of rest. There is good science to back this up.

I have expanded on that concept and discovered you must bring interval training to every area of your life.

Instead of working hard and waiting for one long break in the year by which time you are utterly exhausted and drained, intersperse several shorter breaks in the year. Instead of waiting for a quarterly, add monthly breaks. Instead of waiting for a monthly break, add weekly breaks. Instead of waiting for weekly breaks, add a break daily. Take several time outs from sitting and working on your desk. Go out and get some fresh air or take a short break. However, you want to do it, create several breaks interspersed with real work. It can only improve your efficiency.

The Pomodoro technique described in Learning How to Learn is built on this principle – use a timer to set time for a short period of high-quality, uninterrupted work and alternate it with a timed break.

Less is More

Our society is so driven to produce and achieve more.

All productivity hacks promise that they will help you achieve more in less time. “More, more, more” is the motto. That is the productivity myth.

Productivity is doing less, not more. Ultimate productivity is doing less but doing it well.

My best mentors limit their to-do list on any one day to one or two items only. That sounds counterintuitive. Judging by their results though, I am compelled to think that their system works better than mine which involves having a long mental to-do list and trusting luck to see how far I go on the list on that day.

We are so obsessed with doing that we feel guilty when we find ourselves doing ‘normal people stuff’ – enjoying watching a show we love or enjoying the company we love to be around.

The person that wins in life is not the one who does it all or takes it all; it’s the one that lived and enjoyed living.

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