Why your brain needs time to rest

In a world where agility is demanded, we have to be reactive and adaptive. Being agile means we don’t have to be perfect, but long-term plans are less concrete. Things can feel chaotic and out of control, and (depending on your personality/preferences), this can feel stressful.

In addition, according to research by Columbia University, busy-ness is a malady of our age, particularly in the US. Being too busy links to social status because it makes other people think you are sought after and in demand. This contrasts with 100 years ago, when social status was linked to leisure time. But maybe this needs to shift again! We are moving out of the knowledge economy where we are rewarded based on what we know – knowledge is not so sacred now it’s all on the internet.

So how can you look after yourself and focus, plan and be productive in this new world?

Defining self-actualisation

You might recognise Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (adapted as a meme for comedy effect).

Maslow wifi battery

Click image to enlarge

The basic theory is that the ultimate aim of humanity is self-actualisation, particularly in economically successful countries. When a population has its basic needs met, a greater proportion of individuals are likely to reach self-actualisation.

But the interpretation of this model is sometimes distorted. Maslow never meant that 100% of your needs at each level of the pyramid have to be met before you can move up – if you look at these levels you can probably relate this interpretation to your own life.

Maslow defined self-actualisation as: “Bringing your full self to the moment, which includes dedicating yourself to work, how you treat others in daily interactions, and holding yourself to the highest standards.”

Self-actualisation is about helping to progress other people as well as yourself. This particularly resonates today in our world where collaboration and co-creativity is essential to fostering an agile mindset, and thus competitive advantage.

Being productive is about mindset

When I’m coaching people about their work:life balance, I find the most successful ones have the discipline to stick to the rules they have set themselves about working hours, exercise, and family time. Within reason, they don’t let work take over. They are wholly committed to their work, and also recognise the importance of a balance that makes sense for them personally (and the resultant positive effect on productivity). They are generally more respectful of their needs and less influenced by the fashion for busy-ness.

It’s perfectly OK to have some flexibility within this. For example, if there’s a particularly important meeting, they might stay late and miss their usual exercise class – but they would reschedule it later that week, not just cancel.

Work:life balance tops the expectations of millennials (some of whom are now 35 years old). They are willing to work hard, but are less willing to work the long hours that previous generations have. It’s important to be aware of that if you want to attract that sort of talent into your organisation.

Some companies have latched onto this problem of presenteeism and the expectation to work long hours. For example, PwC has introduced a flexible schedule where people can select the working hours they need, irrespective of where they are in the hierarchy.

Read the PwC press release

Personal reflections

People who take three or four weeks off at a time come back refreshed, because it gives their brain a rest from the constant busy-ness.

I had a slower pace to my summer this year, and noticed a positive effect. I had time to sit, look at my garden, and chat. I could invest time in my important relationships. I woke without an alarm, and ate and slept when I felt like it. This has allowed my brain to rest, and done me the world of good.

What this means to you

These days, we are bombarded with emails, social media and instant messaging, and expected response times are much shorter than they used to be. However, it’s important to minimise these distractions.

Be present in the moment. Don’t invest too much of your energy in looking backwards or forwards. Focus on one thing and then the next. When you are trying to concentrate, turn your phone to silent and keep it out of sight. If you can see your phone out of the corner of your eye, it takes up space in your brain as you wonder whether there are any messages waiting for you.

To help focus on one specific task, work in a different room, taking just what you need. You’ll find you can work more quickly, and be much more creative and productive. For example, when I’m designing an agenda for a team workshop, I collect all my papers, step away from my office, and work in another room where there are no distractions.

Because our brains are constantly so wired, it can be a good idea to have days that are completely unplanned. Take a day off when you have no ‘to do’ list or appointments. This clears up time for you to think. On the day, simply choose what you want to do moment by moment.

Research shows that if you go for a walk it stimulates your brain to be more creative. Book out a monthly ‘untouchable’ day in your calendar. Leave your phone at home, go off and just let your mind wander. This gives you strategic thinking time and leads to more creative outputs.

Know what activities recharge you, and block out time for those in your calendar.

It’s important to look after yourself and to look after other people. The overall environment in which you live and work will be healthier when you role model want you want for yourself, as it gives other people permission to be less busy too.

Further reading

For more on this topic, you might also find these articles useful: