Productivity and the Wandering Mind
Rest more. It makes you more productive. It alleviates stress. It makes you a better problem solver. It helps with creativity. Neuro-science says so.
A lot of us want to hit reset and make the most of the rest of the year. Either out of enthusiasm or necessity. But it’s sometimes easier said than done.
As children return for the new school year, and some semblance of pre-pandemic life is restored, it seems that September is a natural reset point.
There are two things to note: life is significantly not restored to pre-Covid normality. Uncertainty continues, as does the constant threat of further lock-downs, and changes to rules and norms.
And let’s be up-front here, our government is resolutely failing to communicate its contingency planning, springing change on us all at the last minute in what often seems ad-hoc and ill thought through fashion. So that it’s hard to feel in control of what to do next.
We humans, more than anything, crave control (even if it is the illusion of control) over our choices and our destiny. It is what makes us feel secure. So a knee-jerk approach to governance and law-making leaves us significantly on the back foot, unable to plan or exert control with any sense of certainty or permanence.
Also, there’s a global pandemic. Which, you know, scary.
Given this contradiction between the desire to reset and our very real inability to exert control over many aspects of our lives (the freedoms we took for granted), it seems clear that resetting might pose some challenges.
But all is not lost. And the method of resetting might surprise you. It is rest. Rest often. Rest mindlessly. Don’t aim for constant productivity. Let your mind wander and be unfocused. It’s good for you, and it’s good for getting shit done.
This has been a weird year (obviously). Most of our habits and rituals have been disrupted. Habitual actions utilise different parts of the brain than deliberate actions. They happen autonomically, without prior planning, and without conscious effort. Habit can endure even when working memory is damaged.
The structure of habits is such that one habit impacts the next, so that habits become a part of a system. And because so many habits were disrupted by lockdown, and we experienced dramatic changes in all areas of life, many of our actions ceased to be autonomic and automatic. Suddenly everything had to be considered and thought through. Which is exhausting!
So resetting becomes about restoring habits and rituals. Freeing up working memory for more demanding tasks. Planning and getting focused.
The temptation is to leap in with complex and demanding plans. To be uber-focused to increase productivity. To work hard to achieve what you need to achieve.
In many cases this approach won’t yield the results you want and will leave you feeling more depleted (the opposite of what you want and need), and less motivated. If this is you: you want nothing more than to get going again, to feel on top of things, to make stuff happen… I’ll remind you: rest often. Rest mindlessly. Don’t aim for constant productivity. Let your mind wander and be unfocused. It’s good for you, it's true!
How to reset:
To start with, rest.
Plan to let your mind wander by doing undemanding tasks.
Anecdotally we know about breakthroughs made in various scientific areas that have come whilst the thinker was focused on some other thing (think Newton, Einstein, Archimedes).
And while the mechanism behind this kind of phenomenon is still somewhat mysterious, numerous research studies have shown that mind-wandering is associated with stress reduction, problem-solving and creativity.
The first instinct that we have when trying to re-focus is to bully ourselves with lists of should and oughts. I should complete X tasks daily. I ought to be Y amount of productive. I should be Z level of focused.
But actually, creating time to be not-productive, to eschew demanding and engaging tasks, to stare at into space for a time, to fold socks (hello working from home), or to do whatever isn’t squeezing your brain into some highly productive, externally focused scenario, is going to help you get on track with your to do list.
Rest will allow your brain to do internally-focused, unconscious work. To wander around and make sense of your everyday experiences. This is not about letting your mind wander during focused work (that would not help), but rather to be deliberate and to give yourself time and space to do nothing.
What to do to promote rest: Take a break
I can’t overstate the efficacy of taking a deliberate, pre-planned, guilt-free break. Either schedule time off work for an extended period if you are able to, schedule space in your day for time off, or take spontaneous breaks in response to your tiredness cues or when your mind starts wandering. A wandering mind is incompatible with focused work. Switching off on purpose will help you to regain focus later.
Even if you are very busy, you will gain more from time away from your desk doing something unrelated, than if you tether yourself to your to do list all day.
Here are some ideas for creating productivity through rest:
Do something physical that you enjoy.
(Personally I like walking. 15 minutes is enough to re-energise me. Make sure that you take the time to look around and notice your surroundings, to completely immerse yourself in the here and now, rather than on what you have to do when you get back to the office. Watch the leaves in the trees, listen to the birds, or the traffic sounds, or to snippets of conversations).
Do something repetitive like organising a drawer, re-ordering your books or papers or tools.
Do something soothing like colouring or meditation.
Stare into space.
Lie down and listen to music.
Whatever you do to rest, make sure that your brain is passive rather than active (no scrolling, or tv watching, or podcasts).
Plan (But make it realistic)
Resting 100% of the time isn’t going to help you achieve productivity goals. Obviously. You also need to do the stuff that gets the stuff done (if you see what I mean).
Goal setting is more complex than deciding you’ll do a thing. Like climb Mount Everest. And it’s more complex than breaking your Mount Everest task down into its component parts and doing one thing at a time. If you’ve never climbed a mountain before you might want to start by aiming to climb Mount Snowden first. Excessively demanding goals, like climbing Mount Everest, before you even know if you can climb Mount Snowden, tend to overwhelm.
So decide in advance what is an acceptable level of performance. And aim for that. Mount Everest is usually a career pinnacle (pardon the pun), not the thing you aim for every few months…
Make your plan motivating and manageable, and make sure that you include plenty of down time to make the most of your brain’s amazing capacity to figure complicated things out in the background.