We’re not designed for multitasking and we’re certainly not designed to work continuously without a break.
We’re designed to pulse, that is alternate between expending energy and recovering.
The heart beats. The lungs breathe in and out. The brain makes waves. We wake and sleep. Even digestion is rhythmic.
We’re built the same way according to Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. Schwartz told Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, that we’re not built for the modern environment.
Ignoring the Obvious
(Because the ideal worker is measured in hours) we tend to put in long ones, (Schwartz) said. We ignore the signs of fatigue, boredom, and distraction and just power through. But we’re hardly doing our best work.
“We’ve lost touch,” Schwartz says, “with the value of rest, renewal, recovery, quiet time, and downtime.” The pressure of long hours, in a face time world, combined with the constant bombardment of modern interruptions (think email, phone calls, texts, meetings, etc.) means that increasingly we’re not doing our best thinking at work. Maybe we should heed the advice of some famous philosophers and take a walk.
We sleep in 90-minute cycles, with our brain waves slowing and speeding, only to begin again.
Schwartz’s thinking was influenced by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson is the guy behind the 10,000-hour rule.
Here is Schulte explaining in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time:
Ericsson studied young violinists at the prestigious Academy of Music in Berlin to see what it takes to be the best. Ericsson is widely credited for coming up with the theory that it takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice in anything to become an expert.
“That led to the assumption that the best way to get things done is to just work more hours,” Schwartz said. But that’s only part of it.
Ericsson’s study found that not only did the best violinists practice more, they also practiced more deliberately: They practiced first thing in the morning, when they were freshest, they practiced intensely without interruption in typically no more than ninety-minute increments for no more than four hours a day.
Most importantly, the top violinists rested more — napping more during the day and sleeping longer at night. Sleep is actually more important than food. “Great performers,” Schwartz wrote in Be Excellent at Anything, “work more intensely than most of us do but also recover more deeply.”
Three-hour meetings? That’s a recipe for disaster leading to subpar work and poor decisions, not to mention meeting marathons drive people to hate work.
Attention Deficit Disorder
Ed Hallowell believes our always-on environment is harmful to our ability to focus.
He’s a psychiatrist with ADD, and he spent years working on practical solutions to help people being overloaded by too many demands on their time and energy.
I read his book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life, a few years back. He claims we have “culturally generated ADD.”
Having treated ADD since 1981, I began to see an upsurge in the mid-1990s in the number of people who complained of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. Many came to me wondering if they had ADD. While some did, most did not. Instead, they had what I called a severe case of modern life.
Breaks Inspire Creativity
Scientists have found that people who take time to daydream score higher on tests of creativity. And there’s a very good biochemical reason why your best ideas and those flashes of insight tend to come not when you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, oh ideal worker, but in the shower.
In a series of tests using brain imaging and electroencephalography, psychologists John Kounios and Mark Beeman have actually mapped what happens in the brain during the aha! moment, when the brain suddenly makes new connections and imagines, Kounios has said, “new and different ways to transform reality creatively into something better.” When the brain is solving a problem in a deliberate and methodical way, Kounios and Beeman found that the visual cortex, the part of the brain controlling sight, is most active. So the brain is outwardly focused. But just before a moment of insight, the brain suddenly turns inward, what the researchers called a “brain blink.” Alpha waves in the right visual cortex slow, just as when we often close our eyes in thought. Milliseconds before the insight, Kounios and Beeman recorded a burst of gamma activity in the right hemisphere in the area of the brain just above the ear, believed to be linked to our ability to process metaphors.
A positive mood heightens the chances for creative insight, as does taking time to relax, as Archimedes did in his bathtub before his eureka! moment about water displacement and as Einstein did when working out his Theory of Relatively while reportedly tootling around on his bicycle.
Working in Pulses
Terry Monaghan, a self-described productivity expert, whom we met in Work, Play, Love, encouraged Brigid Schulte to work in pulses. The idea is to chunk your time. This is why one of the single most effective changes you can make to your workday is to move your creative work to the start of the day — you give yourself a chunk of time.
Discussing this in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte writes:
The idea was to chunk my time to minimize the constant multitasking , “role switching,” and toggling back and forth between work and home stuff like a brainless flea on a hot stove. The goal was to create periods of uninterrupted time to concentrate on work— the kind of time I usually found in the middle of the night—during the day. And to be more focused and less distracted with my family.
When it was time to work, I began to shut off e-mail and turn off the phone. When it was time to be with family, I tried to do the same. I began to gather home tasks in a pile and block off one period of time every day to do them. It was easier to stay focused on work knowing I’d given myself a grace period to get to the pressing home stuff later.
The Thirty Minute Pulse
When you find yourself procrastinating, avoiding something, or otherwise stuck in a state of ambivalence, try a timer. Monaghan recommends 30 minutes then taking a break. “Your brain,” she says, “can stay focused on anything, even an unpleasant task, if it knows it will last only thirty minutes.”
I find this useful. I have a 15-minute hour-glass sitting on my desk.
Putting It All Together
Work in pulses. Chunk your time. Do a daily brain dump to get things off your mind. Keep a notebook with you. If you feel worried or stressed, write it out in your worry journal. Add more of a routine to your day to help avoid decision fatigue. When things are automatic, they don’t consume as much energy.
Don’t wake up and check your email, get to the office and check your email, and then check your email hourly throughout the day. Check your email in batches: late morning and late afternoon.
Most importantly, make time to pause and think about what is most important to you. Narrow your focus and make 80% of your time on the three big things that are important to you. Let everything else fit in the 20% of the time left. Let the truly sucky stuff fit in 5% of the time. If leisure is important to you and you can’t find time for it, schedule it in. When you wake up, do one thing that’s important to you right away.