Busier is better. Right?
Success comes from hard work, so the more you work, the more successful you will be. Right?
Being busy has become a symbol of success, so much so that in daily conversations with others, we sometimes get into comparing levels of busyness, as if that will somehow prove our value. Productivity has become synonymous with worth, and rest is considered an indulgence, a sign of being unmotivated or lazy, or something we have learned to feel ashamed of. (I recently decided I would no longer eat my meals on the go; however, I feel deeply guilty and the need to hide when, on occasion, I take a break in the middle of the day to eat a meal in front of the telly). We’ve all bought into the busyness hustle.
According to Jabr Ferris (2013), a 2012 end of year survey revealed Americans had an average of 9 unused vacation days. Other surveys have shown even when Americas are on vacation, they obsessively check and respond to emails, and tend to feel obliged to get some work done. As opposed to the European Union which mandates 20 paid vacation days, the U.S. has no laws guaranteeing paid time off. Rest is certainly not a virtue in the U.S.
But what if we got this all wrong? What if rest, taking breaks, procrastinating, or working more slowly in certain situations actually leads to greater productivity and better results?
What if rather than success, busyness really means your life is a bit out of control, out of balance, and that you don’t really have the time to do the things that truly lead to an emotionally and physically healthy, satisfying, productive and truly successful life?
Author Ryan Holiday (The Daily Stoic, The Obstacle is the Way) says, “Success is how empty my calendar is, because that means I am doing shit I want to do.” I don’t know about you, but this hit a cord with me; maybe our life frame should not be about filling up our time, but freeing up our time, by becoming more deliberate in our life choices and decisions.
What if there is a deeper emotional and spiritual cost to being constantly busy?
What if true success is a balance between getting things done by slowing things down? Doing less better and more mindfully?
REST IMPROVES MEMORY, PRODUCTIVITY, CREATIVITY, AND MOTIVATION:
In reality, our brain rarely ever stops working, even when we are “resting”. Studies in the last couple of decades have discovered a circuit involving disparate regions of the brain that turn “on” when people are “resting” or daydreaming. This circuit has been named the default mode network (DMN). We’ve almost all experienced the epiphanies that sometimes seem to come out of nowhere when we decide to “sleep on a problem” or return after a break to a complex task with sudden clarity on how to solve it. This is in large part because of the activity of the DMN during our periods of rest.
Many studies have now tied rest to improvements in attention, memory, productivity, and creativity. For example, Amber Brooks & Leon Lack (2006) looked at the impact of naps of different durations (5, 10, 10, and 30 minutes) on attention in college students. After a night of only 5 hours of sleep, naps of 10, 20 and 30 minutes all improved the students’ attention scores. More specifically:
“volunteers who napped for 20 or 30 minutes had to wait half an hour or more for their sleep inertia to wear off before regaining full alertness, [but] 10-minute naps immediately enhanced performance just as much as the longer naps without any grogginess.”
The link between sleep and memory formation has long been established, however, according to Linda Wasmer Andrews (2016) more recent studies have demonstrated that, “waking rest” also helps consolidate memories and improve learning. During rest, “it appears that the brain reviews and ingrains what it previously learned.”
Meditation has also been found to have numerous cognitive benefits. According to Jabr, studies comparing long-time expert meditators with novices or people who do not meditate, find meditators outperform non-meditators on tests of mental acuity. In addition, studies show:
“[meditators] may also develop a more intricately wrinkled cortex —the brain’s outer layer, which is necessary for many of our most sophisticated mental abilities, like abstract thought and introspection. Meditation appears to increase the volume and density of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped area of the brain that is absolutely crucial for memory; it thickens regions of the frontal cortex that we rely on to rein in our emotions; and it stymies the typical wilting of brain areas responsible for sustaining attention as we get older.”
Another powerful impact of taking mental breaks has been found for creative thinking. Studies have found taking walks increases creativity. According to Andrews, a Stanford University study showed that, in tasks that require imagination, walking led to more creative solutions than simply sitting did.
“The study’s participants were asked to do the kinds of mental tasks that are typically used to test creativity, such as thinking of unusual uses for common objects or coming up with analogies to express complex ideas. Across four experiments, from 81% to 100% of participants produced more creative ideas while walking, as compared to sitting”.
The walking impact remained true whether walking outdoors or indoors but being wheeled around in a wheelchair outdoors had little impact. So, if you want to be a writer, take walks.
Much to my own personal excitement, there is even a good case for procrastination. Adam Grant, in his famous TED talk on procrastination, talked about a U-shaped relationship between procrastination and creativity. He found people who are the most original thinkers are ones who start a task early, but then procrastinate a bit before getting back to it. People who finish a task quickly and early, lean toward finding the most common solutions to a problem which tend to be less original. Those who procrastinate too long, end up having to rush in the end which leads to focusing on the simplest solutions. Most original thinkers start quick by accelerating lots of ideas at a fast pace early on, but then slow down to allow the brain to access lots of varied and new insights before moving back into productivity mode.
The idea here is when people procrastinate it is rare that they are doing nothing, instead they are often focusing on other tasks or problems while their brains are continuing to work through the original problem “off-line”. According to Grant, we have a better memory for incomplete than complete tasks; once we complete a task, our brains put them away and we tend to forget them, but incomplete tasks are kept on-line so to speak, so even while we work on a different task, the brain continues to work on the original problem, perhaps even relating insights learned through the new task to the original one.
Breaks also help to maintain or renew motivation especially for long-term tasks. According to psychologist Alejandro Lleras, “For a challenging task that requires sustained attention, research shows briefly taking our minds off the goal can renew and strengthen motivation later on.” Our brains are designed to adapt to a constant stimulation. Stare at an object in the periphery of our visual field long enough, it disappears. In the same way our ability to “see” something clearly can diminish the longer we focus on it. Taking breaks then allows one to deactivate and then re-engage with a stimulus which allows renewed attention and focus. In this way, rest is a way to recharge, which actually allows you to continue to work more effectively for longer. Taking breaks and engaging in things that give you a sense of joy and comfort also works to lower stress, increases the positivity in your life which then drives motivation. According to Krista-Lynn Landolfi, a master transformation coach:
“Next time you’re feeling a mid-afternoon slump, turn on some music, get up, and dance! Dancing is a great form of exercise that increases heart rate and oxygenates the brain, which will lift the fog and quickly refocus you,”
Love that idea!
The point is, constant work, that push to hustle, not only wears us down but may be less effective in meeting our goals in the long run. In fact, mental rest, seems not only helpful, but crucial, to productivity. Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times:
"The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."
THE COST OF BUSYINESS:
While research shows rest to be beneficial to the basic cognitive functions of memory, attention, productivity and creativity, I actually believe the cost of busyness to be a bit more nefarious than just diminishing productivity. Being bombarded with busy can actually impair our ability to make good decisions, maybe even impact ethically based decisions, and beyond that I believe an absence of time spent in stillness or quietness of mind has detrimental effects on our emotional well-being.
INCREASED BIAS IN DECISION-MAKING
In his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman described 2 systems of thought, two brains. The first system processes information automatically and operates with little effort; it forms quick impressions, an immediate understanding, is intuitive and impulsive. The second system requires attention and effortful activity; it guides our logic and reasoning and helps us make choices through weighing options, using caution and reasoning. Both systems can have blind spots: system two requires energy and attention which can be limited, but system one ignores ambiguities in order to make quick decisions, leaning on shortcuts in thinking, mental heuristics, which can lead to misjudgments and bias.
Our minds want to expend the least energy possible, so it takes the easiest route. If system one thinks it can handle a situation, it will not activate system two. While there are situations in which making the instinctual decision is the right one, like familiar everyday decisions in familiar everyday contexts, there are times which require more deliberate reasoning and thought. New situations, unclear or ambiguous problems, creative and analytic processes, all require the slower processing of system two. Since system two requires energy however, when we get overwhelmed or depleted, (like, I believe, happens when we are really busy), it no longer has the fuel it needs to consider choices properly. In these cases, System one kicks back on and we make decisions based on impulse. This not only hinders creative responses, but it leaves us prone to bias even to the point of ethical misjudgments. We lose our flexibility of thought, our ability to see the nuances, the big picture, and come up with creative solutions.
The quality of our mind determines the quality of our lives. It is perhaps our most important investment. And it requires rest. A stressed mind moves to habit, immediate gratification, quick solutions, heuristics and biases. A busy life means a multitude of little decisions over the day. We end up with decision fatigue and our mind (system 2) just wants to shut off. At least that is how I tend to experience it. A busy life means less mind space for, well, thinking through things.
DECREASED HEALTH & WELLBEING:
In another powerful TED Talk, Andy Puddicombe noted:
“There was a research paper that came out of Harvard, just recently, that said on average, our minds are lost in thought almost 47% of the time. 47%. At the same time, this sort of constant mind-wandering is also a direct cause of unhappiness. Now we’re not here for that long anyway, but to spend almost half of our life lost in thought and potentially quite unhappy, I don’t know, it just kind of seems tragic..”
Puddicombe says when we don’t give our minds time to rest, we get stressed, and stress robs us of the things in life that are most important to us, because it pulls you away from being in the present moment. It is only when we can be truly present in our life, in what we are doing, and whom we are spending time with, can we truly absorb what is good about life. When we are constantly in our heads we miss so much. We miss the abundance, beauty and joy that is available to us in each moment. We miss the experience of being alive, of feeling connected and vital. Without presence there is no savoring, and without savoring there is no real joy. Without joy our cup runs empty. We burn out. Our light diminishes.
If we end up just rushing through our days, being lost in the weeds of minute-to-minute decisions, how are we going to know if we are actually getting any closer to what we want our lives to look and feel like, as well as who we want to be? Being mindful of the life we are living requires taking a breath, slowing down, looking at the big picture. If we are so busy, we cannot create space, we will find ourselves simply reacting to demands ahead of us without giving ourselves the time to check in and see if fulfilling those demands are really getting us toward the future we want. Not everything is worthy of our time and energy, but making that evaluation requires space for quiet thought.
Summarized by Ferris Jabr (2013), in a review of research on the DMN, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang argued that:
“far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is in fact essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics—processes that depend on the DMN. Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself. Accruing evidence suggests that DM brain systems activated during rest are also important for active, internally focused psychosocial mental processing, for example, when recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions with moral connotations.”
What is the right speed? I heard this somewhere, (I cannot remember where), “The right speed is working at a pace where you are still loving what you are doing.” I believe it is where you are still loving life, and where that life is fully embodied. If you find yourself not in absolute love with life, that’s when you need to slow down.
A QUICKIE LIST OF WHAT TO DO:
Put away your phone for some period during the day
Sit down to eat lunch - with a book, while watching telly, or sitting outside
Bring in enjoyment - savor that coffee, that piece of chocolate.
Take time to appreciate people and things
Listen to your deeper needs (longings)
Have a private dance party for your self
Develop a meditation practice
Protect your sleep
Say "no" more - evaluate if something really fits with your values for life
Talk about "rest" as a value so your kids learn it too
Andrews, Linda Wasmer (2016) To become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minding-the-body/201603/become-better-writer-be-frequent-walker
Jabr, Ferris (2013) Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/
Selig Meg (2017) How do work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/changepower/201704/how-do-work-breaks-help-your-brain-5-surprising-answers
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Brief diversions vastly improve focus, researchers find." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 February 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110208131529.htm