Daily optimisation techniques that help you produce better work and live a better quality of life can be very helpful to your to daily living, but we often get caught up in the work and forget to relax. In fact, we drastically underestimate how much we need breaks. Real breaks.
This post originally appeared on the Crew blog
I left town for a week. I didn’t just go to another city. I went to one of the most remote areas of the Southwest. I went where there’s no internet, no mobile service… nothing. Dis-conn-ected.
But let me back up for a second. For anyone who’s read some of my latest articles, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about avoiding burnout, finding productivity hacks, life hacks, etc. I have this desire to seek balance — which is tough for a quasi-perfectionist like myself. I’m really freakin’ competitive!
Unfortunately, that’s a personality trait that doesn’t typically lend itself to balance. Despite that, I spend a lot of time trying techniques like only working on a single task at a time, prioritisation exercises, scheduling time for various things in life (family, friends, exercise, sleep).
And that’s all useful for daily work and life. But I discovered something life-changing by taking that week offline: we drastically underestimate how much we need breaks. Real breaks.
Before leaving town I was struggling with a big work-related decision. I wasn’t sleeping well, I flip-flopped on what I thought I should do at least ten times a day. I was plagued with indecision and the stress was building. I was wearing thin; I even got sick. The last thing I was thinking about was how refreshed I’d feel when I got back. Like most people, I was stressed about leaving a mountain of work and not having access to the internet if shit hit the fan while I was gone.
Fast-forward a week and the decision was suddenly a no brainer. Not only that, but new ideas flowed like they hadn’t in months. I felt excited, powerful, creative and confident. My edge was back. I didn’t even know I had hit a slump until I got back from the trip and felt like a new person.
It’s like not realising you’re thirsty until you take a sip of water and end up gulping down the whole glass.
But don’t take my word for any of this. The change in mental clarity was so massively impactful it spurred my interest in doing a bit of research as to what happened to my brain.
We’re Wearing Ourselves Out
According to a LexisNexis Survey, “Workers report spending slightly more than half (51%) of their work day receiving and managing information, rather than actually using information to do their jobs.”
Think about that for a second. If you work out the same muscle group every day, you won’t continue to build that muscle. Without rest, it can’t rebuild itself. Rest is just as (if not more) important for building strength as exercising the muscle is. Our brain is no different.
Additionally, we take for granted how much energy our brain actually consumes. Ever notice it’s hard to concentrate when you’re tired? There’s a good reason for that.
Scientific American published that, “the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 per cent of the body’s total haul.”
Another set of experiments suggest that the brain never really takes a break. Chris Miall, a behavioural brain scientist at the University of Birmingham, UK puts it bluntly: “The brain only rests when you’re dead.”
With the intake of constant information, all day and even into the night, we’re constantly and consistently trying to remember and track so many little bits and pieces of information. It’s exhausting.
We’re Really Bad At Identifying When We Need To Step Away From Things
In America, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong workers average 10 days off each year. But, the US has no federal laws guaranteeing paid time off, sick leave or even breaks for national holidays, unlike the UK, which mandates 20 days of paid vacation.
Even though the average is ten days off, a survey by Harris Interactive found that, at the end of 2012, Americans had an average of nine unused vacation days. Several other surveys have shown that more than half of Americans admitted that they obsessively check and respond to emails or feel obliged to get some work done in between activities on vacation.
Basically, we’re inundated with work all… the… time. Even when we’re not working, we’re thinking about it. Even saying you won’t check your email but having access to it in your pocket isn’t the same as a real break. You still think about it.
Again, the problem remains (like the muscle we discussed), the brain needs rest. Not just a good nights sleep. Not a few minutes of mediation each day or a fun activity. A real, prolonged break.
I’m certainly not going to make a case that technology is bad. I’ve built my career in tech! But the thing about being connected to everything all the time is that there is a constant, ceaseless battle for your attention. I’m getting your attention right now. It may not be your full attention, if you’ve got other tabs open in your browser, emails coming in, texts buzzing in your pocket. But I’ve got a piece of your attention. You’ve given it to me, whether or not you consciously realise you’ve chosen to.
I’m one of hundreds (if not thousands) of things that will take a bit of your attention today.
Every thought, every time you remember to do something, read something, think about something, eat something, talk to someone, you’re giving up a piece of your attention.
Face it — whether you like it or not, you’re overstimulated. We all are.
The idea that technology has taken over every part of our lives isn’t a cynical theory. The New York Times has devoted an entire series of articles to studying the effects of technology on our brains.
Tim Kreider writes:
“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.”
When we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. What we experience is our “resting state networks” at work. Many important mental processes demand this kind of “downtime” and other forms of rest during the day. This is also why sleep is so important, but it doesn’t end there.
“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future,” writes Ferris Jabr in “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime”.
We need to get over our predisposed inclination to consider rest a “waste of time.” It’s actually quite the opposite.
So what was so different about a remote, unplugged vacation versus any other?
Here are my five key factors:
Make very few decisions
Unlike a trip to a city where you have a lot stimulation and choices of where to go, what to do, who to see, what to eat, etc. etc. A trip like the one I took required almost no decision-making beyond what I felt like doing at that very moment.
Don’t keep track of time
I didn’t wear a watch or have my phone constantly at arms reach. I ate when I was hungry. Slept when I was tired. I didn’t focus on time passing or being late or things I needed to do later.
Play games, work on puzzles
Card games, board games, crossword puzzles, you name it. There have been tons of studies on the benefits of play and the physical and mental stimulation associated with it — but that’s a post for another day.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I meditated. But I spent a lot of time sitting quietly in introspection — looking at the water, the cliffs, the sky, the stars and letting my mind wander. I thought about all the things that I’m grateful for, the things that make me happy, the things I’m excited for for the future. Things that scare me, worry me, stress me out, or make me angry just weren’t a part of my thought process. For a whole week, there was no mental load of any sort of negativity. In fact, ‘regular life’ seemed a world away.
Spend time in nature
This is probably the most important aspect of all, at least for me. In The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer writes, “A walk in the woods is like a vacation for the prefrontal cortex.” What he’s referring to is the impact nature has on our brains. It’s unlike anything else. It gives us new perspectives, helps us notice more things we are often blind to (birds chirping, how the wind feels, smells, sounds, bugs). We awaken senses that are otherwise suppressed, and re-ignite pieces of our brain.
Each of these factors are things we rarely do in our hurried lives or even on many ‘regular’ vacations. When we completely disconnect and get back to nature, we truly allow ourselves to think. We can sift through all the information swirling around in our heads and start to digest it, use it, learn from it. We can take in our surroundings and appreciate the smallest of things.
To me it’s like the difference between scarfing down a huge meal so fast you barely taste it and feel sick afterward versus sitting down and slowly enjoying a meal, tasting each ingredient, every flavour — having gratitude for every bite.
As for me, I’m going to find a way to make these types of retreats a much more frequent part of my life. The value has been proven 10 times over already.