Why You Should Take A Day To Be Productively Unproductive

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Ah, productivity.

We have yet to crack the code.

Are we really so bad at being productive that we must science it?

Yes.

‘How do I stay productive?’ is the only question asked more times than ‘Who shot Tupac Shakur?’

Ok, I may be exaggerating… with the Tupac thing, but productivity hacks are no joke!

To me, it actually seems quite simple.

The last working day of the year is uncommonly known as ‘No Interruptions Day’. It’s supposed to be the most productive day of the year, a day where you’re encouraged to unplug— get off the internet and social media, don’t answer your phone, close your office door— and GET S**T DONE.

So did you do it?

I certainly didn’t. And I’ll tell you why…

Think about it: This year No Interruptions Day fell on December 29th. This is a day, right in between Christmas and New Years, a time of the year when you have no idea what day it is, which way is up, or which way is right. Your head is spinning and you’re moving a mile a minute.

Your days are filled with shopping and cooking, decorating and visiting, entertaining and wrapping. Then, amongst all of that, you’re expected to dedicate your attention to one full day to uninterrupted work, when really what you need is one full day of uninterrupted sleep.

 

Once we get to January, we’re expected to get right back at it with work or studies and begin planning for another year ahead, with no real break in between.

The concept makes sense, but you can see that it’s not so attainable.

Realizing that, I quickly began thinking about another kind of day. A day that everyone deserves and that puts us in the best possible position for ongoing success…

A day where we do nothing.

That’s right. NOTHING.

Maybe we call it, ‘Do Nothing Day’.

Now, you may be thinking that doing nothing all day contradicts the notion of trying to be more productive, but that’s where you’d be wrong.

In fact, I think this time of year is the perfect time for Do Nothing Day to occur. Just check out this Google Trends chart when I search the word “productivity”:

 

Each dip over the past 5 years corresponds to a period ranging anywhere from December 21st to January 3rd.

Nobody cares about being productive around the holidays. But, if you check when those searches shoot back up again, you find the third week of January.

That’s telling us something, but what exactly? What can you do to nip your productivity problems in the butt before the first quarter of the year escapes you?

Studies show that slowing down and giving yourself the time to recharge is really all you need to make yourself more alert and focused going forward. It’s important for brain health and functionality, and your overall mental, physical and psychological state.

In this post I’m going to tell you exactly why you NEED a day to do nothing, how it helps, and how to do it. I’m going to show you how following certain best practices can help you make every day your most productive one.

Signs That You Need A ‘Do Nothing’ Day

January 2018 has already nearly passed us by and, if you’re like me, you are still trying to get a handle on everything 2017 threw at you. Your brain feels a bit like mush from all the holiday hustle and bustle. After the novelty of setting a New Year’s resolution has passed, you’re struggling to maintain your motivation and the voice of Mr. Procrastination is creeping in.

 

What you may be experiencing is mental fatigue, and it’s a sign that your brain is in information overload.

Your Prefrontal Cortex Needs A Rest

Our brains are very complex organs that we should really take some time to learn more about. We often use our brains so passively that we can fail to take notice when they are being overworked. Just as our bodies need breaks from physical and strenuous activity, our brains do too.. And maybe even more so.

One section of our brain that gets a lot of “exercise” is the prefrontal cortex. This section is responsible for our executive functioning— focusing, decision making, logic, etc. We use it to think, plan and execute on tasks. Think about how much we rely on that part of or brain. It’s understandable that it may occasionally get tired.

You’re Experiencing Decision Fatigue

When our brains get overly tired, we can begin to encounter a few problems as it relates to mental focus. One such problem is called “decision fatigue”. This is when we use up so much energy to make one decision that any subsequent decision making gets worse and worse as we go. When that happens, we go into a robotic state and default to the most convenient answer.

Decision fatigue was tested in a study on judicial decision making. The study analyzed whether a judge’s ruling changed depending on the point in the day in which they made it— before or after a snack break. After analyzing eight judges in 1,112 parole hearings over 50 days, it was found that a parole request was accepted 65% more frequently after a snack break than just before one.

You see, judges have to base their rulings on a ridgid set of laws and logic. They have to rely on their experience and follow ethical standards. Basically, they really need to know their stuff! The judges in this study were so exhausted after each consecutive hearing that their executive functioning was harmed, leading to ego depletion. They would slowly default to the safest decision and one that required the least amount of thinking—no parole granted—almost unconsciously.  

 

These findings show how mental fatigue can sway the way we think. Repetitive, tough decision making throughout your day can lead to you looking for shortcuts to get you through. This often results in us making poor decisions, such as choosing that burger over a salad, or leads to us simply making no decision at all. That’s why it’s really important to listen and give your brain the breaks it’s asking for.  

You’re In Cognitive Overload

Something else the judges probably experienced in their decision making is cognitive load.

Cognitive load theory refers to the way we process information in the working memory part of our brain. There are three types:

  1. Intrinsic Load – refers to our direct understanding of the information we receive; this is created when we are learning something new and/or complex, and it increases the more unfamiliar we are with the subject or the more difficult we find it. For example, you may be able to easily teach a child that 1+1=2, but may he/she may have a more difficult time learning 5×13.
  2. Extraneous Load – refers to how we process the way the information is presented; this is created when something is delivered to us in a way that requires more effort for us to process. For example, imagine taking a course on ‘How To Grow Your Business’; now, imagine the facilitator of this course whispers everything he/she says. So now, you’re not only trying to grasp the topic matter, but you also have to strain your hearing to even know what’s being said to begin with.  
  3. Germane Load – refers to the organization of the information in our minds for future use. It’s considered a good load and occurs when information is brought to life, meaning we actually apply it to something or have experienced it in the past. For example, when you apply to become a paramedic, you’re required to completely a certain amount of lab scenarios. Running through these scenarios in the course helps engrain these practices into memory and prepares you for when you arrive to the scene in a real life situation.

So, the more effort you have to put into to thinking about something and how to do it, the more mental strain, or cognitive load, this causes, and the less energy you have to put toward other tasks at hand.

Have I convinced you yet?

You’re Being Overworked

 

In North American society, working long hours is not only encouraged, it’s pretty well expected. A 40 hour work week is never a 40 hour work week. Your boss wants you there 15 minutes before your shift begins and you wouldn’t dare expect to leave by 5pm.

As entrepreneurs, we know that a 50 hour work week is even laughable. For us, there is no such thing as a “typical” work week with “regular” hours. We’re often up at 4am and lucky if we’re in bed by midnight.

This isn’t good.

Working this much doesn’t actually have as positive of an effect on our craft that we think is does. Think about all the information we take in throughout the day— at work, then at home, working on our side hustles or taking care of our families. There is always something new to learn or a new problem to tackle. Our minds are in constant processing mode and benefit from no breaks in between. Where’s the relief? This overflow of information drives us into information overload which, in turn, leads to decreased productivity, lack of motivation, and even medical issues.

A study analyzing the effects of long working hours on the risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke found that those who work long hours (>=55 hr/week) have a higher risk of stroke than those working a standard amount of hours (35-40 hr/week); the correlation with heart disease was less pronounced.

We need to get the proper amount of rest and sleep. Plain and simple.

So how do you do it?

How To Take a Brain Break

 

In the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey describes the habits that one must develop in order to excel and grow in life. The 7th habit ‘Sharpen the Saw’, is described as, “preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.”

You need to focus on sharpening your saw in order to experience a full and healthy life.

Rest, Don’t Sleep

When we say your brain needs some rest, this doesn’t mean you need to take a nap for some good healing to take place— though it can definitely help! Simple downtime can be just as powerful.

In this article for Scientific American, science writer Ferris Jabr, says:

“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. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

He goes on to say:

“Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.”

As you can see, resting your brain can clearly do wonders in more than one aspect of your life!

Let Yourself Fall Into Default Mode

Default mode network (DMN) describes our brain’s activity when we are in a resting state or in a state where we are just thinking, with no real end goal in mind. It’s still a fairly new concept, but some research does relate it to mind wandering.

 

A few ways you can do this are to take a walk in the park, stare up at the stars, meditate, or even wash dishes! These are tasks that allow your brain to let go and take in the moment. Think, daydreaming! This is when you can feel your creative juices really starting to flow as you float in free thought.

Let Yourself Divert From The Task At Hand

University of Illinois psychology professor, Alejandro Lleras lightly echos the DMN notion that even when we’re not thinking for a purpose, we are still thinking. He argues in contrast to previous research that claims our attention overtime simply runs out. He says:

For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it, but you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem.”  

He tested his theory by getting four test groups to complete a repetitive computerized task in a one-hour sitting. On group was interrupted twice within the hour to perform a side task which resulted in them being the only ones to experience zero decline in performance.

So when we do begin to lose focus on one thing, we naturally begin diverting our attention somewhere else. This shows how even briefly diverting our brains from long, uninterrupted tasks, can help us in staying focused on our primary task at hand.

Wrapping Up

If you’ve long struggled to take productive breaks or need some other ideas to get you going, try one or more of the following:

And no matter what you choose to do, Step 1 should be to UNPLUG— no texting, calling, scrolling or tapping. This is YOUR time.

So go ahead! Give yourself permission to relax. Turn off the action-oriented, thinking part of your brain and let your default mode kick in. Only you know your body and your mind and when enough is enough. Avoid burnout by allowing yourself to have a day.

This isn’t the first time we’ve written on the topic of productivity. For more inspiration check out our other posts here.

Tell me, what’s your favourite way to relax? What motivates you to keep going when your brain has just had enough? Leave your comments below; I’d love to hear from you!

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