If you’re the type of person who values productivity (and since you’re reading Asian Efficiency, we can probably assume that you are), you have goals. You have plans. You’re ambitious, you have stuff to do, and you don’t have time to waste.
That’s great. Productivity-oriented people are the movers and shakers. We get things done. We like to achieve.
However, sometimes we also need to rest. The drive that pushes us to success is the same drive that keeps us awake at night, too anxious to sleep. It’s the same drive that keeps us so focused on a project that we miss important time with our families and don’t even realize it. Being productive benefits us, and a lot of others, but being unable to take a break and relax doesn’t.
This drive comes from an Overactive Responsibility Function (ORF). If you’re an ORFer, you already know the symptoms well:
- Ever-growing task list(s).
- Multiple committees, meetings, and causes.
- Long list of projects: family, personal, community, career, hobby.
- Twitchy desire to “help” friends who can’t seem to get it together.
- 27 things going at once is a normal way of life.
- Mile-long list of goals to accomplish each weekend in your “free time.”
- Habitually spending your “free time” on stuff that most people would consider work.
- Packed calendar.
- Overbooking yourself has happened…too often.
- Too little sleep.
- Never feeling caught up.
- Tolerating chaos in some parts of life because there are always more important things to do.
To win at being the productivity powerhouse you want to be, you must learn to release some of your responsibility, reclaim some freedom, and bring true rest and relaxation into your life.
You Need to Relax
There are two primary methods of relaxing and renewing both body and mind. The first is the most obvious: sleep.
Sleep is essential; it’s the time when your body adjusts, repairs, and readies itself for the next round of life. It’s when you’re asleep that your body regulates hormones. Too little sleep means higher than normal blood sugar, and it also means that you’ll feel hungrier because your body needs sufficient sleep-time to release leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full. Sleep is essential for cell repair and a strong immune system. If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll probably get sick more often and you’ll be at higher risk for heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and obesity.
Sleep matters for your brain, too; your cognitive functioning is greatly affected by too little sleep, and not in good ways. Sleep is also the time when your brain gets cleaned of the day’s junk. Cells produce waste; when you’re asleep, your neurons shrink, leaving wider fluid channels so the waste can be flushed down to your liver.
That sleep matters is well-established; how much sleep you need, exactly, is not so obvious. The “8 hours” rule is not really a rule. You may need less, or you may need more. The bottom line, however, is that you need enough. To get enough, you have to make getting enough good sleep a priority, which means turning off the computer, putting away the project, and letting yourself shut down for a while.
Enough Sleep, Better Sleep
The first step to getting adequate sleep is to realize that it’s important and that your body, your brain, your work, and your life will suffer without enough of it.
The second step is to start establishing a good ritual for sleep, which could include strategies to help you unwind and be ready to sleep, and to help you get to sleep when you need to.
Your sleep ritual can be as long, as short, as simple, or as complex as you’d like it to be. A successful sleep ritual often includes these three elements:
- A way of shutting down all the tools, information sources, and distractions that keep your brain too active.
- A way to let go of the mental activity of your day, both positive and negative.
- A way to signal to your body that it’s time to rest.
Shutting down the tools and information sources is usually a matter of turning off the screens. The blue light of death inhibits the release of melatonin in your body, so you don’t feel sleepy, you keep staring at the screen, and before you know it, it’s 3am and you’ve been watching YouTube vids on how to milk a goat while editing blog posts and responding to inflammatory social media updates.
It’s a trap. You’ve got to break free, and the simplest (not easiest; simplest) way is to quit using screens for the hour or two before bed.
What to do instead? Oh, something that helps you unwind, maybe.
Writing in a journal is a great way to get stuff off your mind so you can relax. Blurt it all out on paper. Or just make the next day’s to-do list, organize your notes, and let it go for now. Read a book. Take a walk. Call a friend. Do yoga. Meditate. Bake some cookies. Take a warm bath. Stretch. Color.
What you’ve got to remember is that your sleep ritual has one purpose only: helping your body and brain let go of all the stress and thoughts and activity of the day and ease into relaxation. It’s not about being productive, or improving yourself, or coming up with a sleep ritual that sounds cool.
Your sleep ritual is all about a couple of key activities that create a clear signal: the time for work and attention is over, and it’s now time for relaxation and rest. Sex, by the way, is an excellent way to get better sleep: it releases cortisol, which is a stress-inducer, and boosts oxytocin, which increases your sense of affection and well-being.
You Need Downtime, Too
So we’ve covered sleep: it’s important to get enough, and you should set up a sleep ritual so that you do. What about the second way we rest and renew our body and mind? Not by sleeping, but by not working—by engaging in activities that allow us to let go of tension (both mental and physical). By relaxing.
Downtime. Easier said than done, for a lot of us. Who can relax when there’s so much to do?
You can, buddy. And you need to. Multiple studies have shown that downtime—in both long and short periods—increases productivity. Downtime increases your creativity, too; you’re more likely to come up with original solutions and ideas when you’ve had time to daydream, relax, chill. Periods of downtime bring you back with better attention, clarity, learning ability, and motivation.
The benefits of downtime exist, ironically, because our brains get a lot of work done when we relax. We’re listening to music, chatting with a friend, lifting weights, or making dinner; our brains are consolidating and organizing information, forming connections between various inputs, reviewing and analyzing recent experiences, and cleaning up our temporary brain processing and storage for the next use.
Without sufficient downtime, our mental space is cluttered and disorganized. We’re stressed and overwhelmed. Our focus slips, our creativity plummets, and our best efforts at productivity produce mediocre results.
Forcing yourself to work, work, work or think, think, think when you need to relax is counterproductive. The problem is that so many of us have forgotten how to relax. We push ourselves until we collapse into sleep (not enough of it) and then we get up and go again. We can get so used to this routine, in fact, and the sluggish way our brains feel, that we think it’s normal.
Maybe it is normal, but it’s not good. It’s not effective. A continual lack of rest—both sleeping and downtime—can turn into seriously unpleasant consequences: the cumulative fatigue and anxiety produce strained relationships, shoddy work, missed deadlines, poor health, and a malfunctioning brain.
How to Start Relaxing
Scared yet? I am. If I pay attention to the patterns in my own life, I see the anecdotal truth of the factual evidence. When I have too much to do, I stress out, get short-tempered with my husband and kids, sleep less, create anxious mental circles that I tread endlessly, and end up taking much longer than normal to do tasks and complete projects.
The time when I’m busiest is the time when I most need to guard my sleep and my downtime; unfortunately, my typical reaction is the opposite. I think I can push myself for a while, power through the long list, and then catch up.
But it’s a self-defeating cycle: my capabilities plummet from the lack of rest, so everything takes longer, which creates a greater to-do deficit. The need to catch up keeps extending, and the truth is that it will never stop. I’m the one who has to stop—by realizing that my own health, mental capacity, relationships, and quality of life are more important than reaching the end of any list.
To get downtime into our lives, we have to turn off the ORF (Overactive Responsibility Function). Being organized, using good systems, and building good routines will help with that. So will setting definite boundaries and sticking to them: nights are for family, or weekends are for fun, or work only occurs between 6am and 3pm, or for every four hours of work there are two hours of rest.
You need to set your own boundaries, because your needs are different than mine. I know, from a lot of personal trial-and-error, that my maximum amount of productive, mentally intensive work is about five hours in any given day. I can sit at my desk longer than that, but I’m going to twiddle and window-gaze and rewrite the same sentence approximately 63 times.
So I set my work boundaries accordingly: I get up early and work for a few hours, then I turn my attention to homeschooling my kids, keeping our house out of disaster mode, and handling all the little details of life like returning phone calls and sending out birthday party invitations. Most days, I’ll get in another hour or two at my desk in the afternoon, wrapping up what I worked on in the morning.
I used to resent the fact that laundry, dinner, kids, social expectations, and the car needing an oil change demanded my attention and interrupted my work. But I’ve noticed that the time spent folding another basket of clothes or chatting with a neighbor helps me stay productive. I come back to work with ideas, clarity, more energy. I also keep the kids clothed and get to know interesting people, so, bonus.
Find Your Zen
There’s an art to relaxing, especially now that all of us have screens available all the time, everywhere. It’s so easy to default to digital interaction or entertainment that we kind of forget there are other ways to relax.
Screens aren’t bad, either; that’s not what I mean. Apps, games, social media, movies, and Internet browsing are great ways to be entertained and connected, but they’re not always relaxing. We’ve already learned that screens don’t help us sleep; digital devices can be good tools for tuning out work and stress, but they can also leave us irritated, agitated, disconnected, and mentally exhausted.
To get better at relaxing, we need to get better at a variety of relaxing activities. I’ve already mentioned household chores: if you start seeing the mundane tasks of life as a way to chill, washing the dishes becomes a meditative, restorative act rather than drudgery. Exercise, whether intense or casual, has very positive mental effects, and it might also help you look better in a swimsuit. So I hear, anyway.
Other great ways to relax include meditation, yoga, prayer, socializing, getting outside, and listening to music. Spending time with people you love and enjoy is great. Having conversations. Doing art (unless you work as an artist, I guess?). My daughter and I break out colored pencils and markers and crayons and spend time sketching, coloring, doodling, and having fun. She’s pretty good at drawing; I’m not. But the output is unimportant. It’s the process and the time together that relax and refresh.
The activities that relax us tend to be different than our normal work activities, engaging enough to keep our minds off anxieties, and not so difficult as to create new tension. For some people, learning a new skill like knitting or painting will be a great way to relax; for others, a perfectionistic drive might make those attempts stressful and draining. Our personalities and preferences shape what relaxes us. This seems obvious, but all too often we copy someone else’s hobby or downtime activity instead of finding our own. My social-happy husband loves getting together with friends on the weekend. I do, too, but only after I’ve had some significant time alone after a busy week.
The lesson here? Know thyself, and respect thyself. Explore activities until you find the ones that help you relax. Then engage in those activities regularly, because you’ll benefit from them. Consciously pursuing productivity has its limits; set up your systems and workflows and whatnot, but take your downtime just as seriously. Being energetic, efficient, creative, and productive depends as much on being well-rested and relaxed as it does on anything else.