Slow Down to Up Your Productivity

Do you ever notice that some of your clearest or most creative thinking happens in the moments you least expect it? Perhaps in the shower or right as you’re falling asleep?

In our society, we’re taught to “suck it up” or “power through” to get to these thoughts. If you’re stumped on a problem or have writer’s block, the common solution that’s encouraged is chugging coffee or chaining yourself to your desk until all hours of the night until something changes.

This is completely counterintuitive and science shows it’s actually the most inefficient way to achieve your objectives.

Here’s the scoop:

To begin, it’s important to know that our brains can’t actually multi-task well (a select handful of us do have the capacity, but it’s certainly not the majority).

Many of us think we’re too busy, but research proves that we need breaks to boost productivity. Here’s one of the most interesting aspects of the science behind this:

Our brains have two modes: the “focused mode,” which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working) and “diffuse mode,” which is our more relaxed, daydreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard… Some studies have shown that the mind solves its stickiest problems while daydreaming… Breakthroughs that seem to come out of nowhere are often the product of diffuse mode thinking.

That’s because the relaxation associated with daydream mode “can allow the brain to hook up and return valuable insights,” engineering professor Barbara Oakley explained. “When you’re focusing, you’re actually blocking your access to the diffuse mode. And the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem. (source)

 Who knew Buster was actually helping my productivity?! Photo by Pure Style Photography

Who knew Buster was actually helping my productivity?! Photo by Pure Style Photography

So, if you grab a glimpse of puppies on Instagram or sneak a few seconds of that funny video your friends sent in a group text, you’re actually doing your brain a favor! Now that you know the science behind it, here are some ideas for how to break up your day in a realistic way.  

Ideas for action:

Look at your calendar the night before (if your schedule is more predictable, you can book these breaks out farther in advance).

Assess where there’s room for some time away from work or time to do something that feels like a break but is still work. Some ideas:

  • Take a workout class or if time is limited a quick walk (I’ve had clients go to the stairwell and just do a few flights!). You can also move and stretch in the office with these tips.

  • Have lunch outside of the office (even if this means bringing your lunch and simply eating somewhere that’s not your desk).

  • Walk somewhere a bit farther than the office kitchen/cafe to grab coffee/tea/kombucha/a snack (good brain foods).

  • Simply move to a different space such as a conference room or a coffee shop to change the scenery.

  • Set an alarm on your phone, a reminder on your calendar, or have Fitbit nudge you to take breaks and to breathe! Speaking of, deep breathing can be a break in and of itself (and easily accessible to all). There are a handful of techniques here and more on the 4-7-8 breath style for productivity here.  

  • Do a quick 2-minute meditation, or just sit in stillness as an easy option. If you’d rather move, I shared some gentle stretches you can do in your office to counteract computer/phone use.

Time Management Tips:

If you’re rewarding yourself with social media during a break, I recommend setting an alarm. It’s easy for it to be a “time-suck” so I typically set my phone alarm for 10 minutes and I’m always amazed how quickly that goes by!

Some research shows we have more capacity for creative thinking and productivity in the morning before decision fatigue sets in. The more you can automate your mornings (have clothes picked out, breakfast decided upon, lunch packed, train times picked, etc.) the more energy you’ll have later. There’s also an activity called “morning pages” if you want to do some thoughtful self-exploration. This can be especially useful if you’re thinking of making a big change, or are in the midst of change already.

Now that you know more of the science behind it, can you be kinder to yourself for craving these pauses in your work day?

How can you incorporate some of these productivity practices?

If you’re already doing them, what are your favorite ways to take a break when you’re feeling stumped or stuck? I’d love to know!