9 Ways You Can Be More Productive

We wear “busy” like a badge of honour – whether that’s at work or as an “involved parent”. We leave our holiday allowance unused and in the evenings and at weekends, we compulsively check our emails. We’re always “available”. So rest has become something passive – the box set, the Facebook feed – to be squashed (if we’re lucky) in what’s leftover between work and sleep (once we’ve done dinner, supervised homework, taken the bins out…). Really though, effective rest is a skill – and brings so much more than “me time”. It’s restorative and rejuvenating, it makes you happier, healthier, more focused and more productive. So just what is the right kind of rest? And how can we find the time?

Our expert
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a business consultant, academic
and founder of The Restful Company talks to Anna Moore about his
fascinating new book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
(Penguin). Buy now at Amazon for £12.08.

1. Start early

We tend to see staying up late as a luxury – a “gift” to ourselves. But the best way of scheduling daily rest is to start work early and tackle your most challenging tasks first. This is when our creative energy peaks, we’re most able to concentrate deeply and least likely to be distracted by emails, Twitter, Facebook or anything else! Research has shown that the most successful people tend to spend just a few hours a day doing what we would recognise as their most important work – and usually, it’s the first four hours. Designing a distraction-free morning allows you to make space in the day for rest – with no guilt!

2. Incubate

If you’re working on a project, writing a presentation, trying to find a solution, rest is crucial for fulfilling your potential. When your brain tires, or your four hours are done, don’t keep plugging away! The next crucial stage is “incubation”. Though we’re hardly conscious of it, the “resting brain” isn’t inactive – it keeps generating ideas, making sense of the past, preparing for future events – and searching for solutions to current problems. This mind wandering allows different areas of the brain to connect and start talking to each another – regions that don’t work together when we’re really focusing – and it’s the reason why famous eureka moments often happen when they are least expected!

3. Walk
Whether it’s the morning journey to work, 20 minutes at lunch or out with the dog at the end of the day, a daily walk frees your mind to wander, boosts creativity and helps you think better. If you can get to the park or open countryside, that’s a bonus but the latest research shows that even a spell on the treadmill will improve thinking power. As yet, scientists aren’t sure why walking has such magical effects, but it’s believed that it relaxes and diverts the mind, taking up just enough brain power to allow your subconscious to do its own thing. It can be solitary or social, a mobile meeting or a quiet ramble, but it will clear your mind and provide a fresh perspective.

4. Get breathless

While walking can stimulate new ideas, aerobic exercise like dancing, running, vigorous gardening or cycling with some uphill sections will improve your ability to make them happen. Even if you’re non-sporty by nature, aerobic exercise can boost intelligence by increasing production of neurotrophins (essential for the growth of neurons, the building blocks of the nervous system). Instead of treating exercise as something that would be good to do when you finally have time, making it part of a regular routine makes the brain function faster and more effectively, relieves stress and increases capacity to deal with a difficult job.

5. Nap
No sleep is lost time. Your brain doesn’t switch off when you shut down. It gets busy consolidating memories, reviewing the day’s events and plugging away at big problems and little niggles. And though naps may be thought of as a habit for the very young and very old, they’re now recognised as a powerful tool for recovering focus with business leaders like Arianna Huffington, founder of the website The Huffington Post, advocating a 20-minute nap to improve memory, restore energy and concentration. Not every working day can accommodate this of course, but with more of us learning flexible working patterns, it’s worth knowing that experts suggest one hour’s nap six hours after you wake – say 1pm – gives the biggest mental charge. This is because it’s long enough to include periods of REM and slow-wave sleep.

6. Indulge passions
We feel guilty about what used to be called “hobbies” – they take us away from the family, they’re not “work”, they don’t make money, so as adult life gets busy, they often become a luxury we can’t afford. Women tend to be worse than men at making time for passions. In truth, the right kind of hobby makes you a far better worker, providing that crucial detachment, boosting energy and preventing burnout. The most rejuvenating hobbies are mentally absorbing, with problems and challenges, and clear rewards. If it has a personal dimension – if it’s something you did as a child – it’s even more nourishing.

7. Stop, don’t stall

Knowing when to stop what you’re doing and start resting is crucial. Don’t press on with a work challenge until you’re exhausted and the well runs dry. The best time to stop is when you can see your next move. Go to sleep on a good idea. It will keep your subconscious mind engaged with the problem – and make it much easier to pick up again and start next day.

8. Write, don’t tweet

We may think checking Twitter or our Facebook feed is “downtime” but, for our brains, processing endless information and other people’s holiday pictures, or curating our lives for other people’s consumption, is not restful. Traditionally, our brains have made sense of our experiences and processed our thoughts by mind wandering – it’s how we learn lessons. Instead of live tweeting your day, try waiting till the end and then writing down your thoughts. Your mind has time to unlock when it’s not constantly thinking about how to reduce something to 140 characters!  

And, how to holiday well…

Most of us know from bitter experience that when we’re burnt out, we make bad decisions, lose perspective, fall out with colleagues, kids and partners. “Detachment” (the ability to switch off and put work completely out of your mind) is crucial for peak mental and physical performance. It’s also important to know that the happy boost we get while away tends to peak on day eight – and once we’re back, our new energy levels last only three or four weeks. For these reasons, it’s better to have lots of shorter breaks through the year than one marathon summer bonanza. Breaks with the best form of recovery contain four major qualities (think of them as vitamins!)…

Control… You need to be able to choose how you spend your time and energy (if you’re still cooking, picking up socks and smoothing out rows, don’t expect to feel refreshed by the end!).
Achievement… Set up an element of something that engages and challenges – yoga? Diving? Painting? Climbing? The key factor is that it absorbs you and is rewarding when you do it well.
Detachment… If you go somewhere with no WiFi, or let your phone run out of charge or stop checking your emails, so much the better.
Relaxation… Seems obvious but is hard to achieve immediately. Pay attention to the first three qualities and this will automatically follow.

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