Become More Productive Without Actually Doing More Work


Lindsay LaVine

April 14, 2014

In an effort to out-do colleagues and stay at the top of their game, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and other professionals work crazy hours, remain plugged in and forego vacations.

While examples such as a 21-year-old investment bank intern from the U.K. dying after working three straight days without sleep, or the 32-year-old California lawyer who died after working 80 to 100 hours a week are extreme, professionals often sacrifice time, health, and family to get ahead.

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Emma Seppala, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford University, recently examined this issue for Psychology Today, and advocates doing something different.

What if, she asks, the secret to exceptional productivity wasn’t working crazy hours, but time spent relaxing and volunteering? Here are three suggestions to become more productive, without actually doing more work:

1. Schedule downtime.

How many times have you been in the shower or watching TV, and an idea or solution to a problem popped into your head, seemingly out of nowhere? “The trick to self-mastery actually lies in the opposite of control–effortlessness, relaxation, and well-being,” Seppala says.

“Control is fatiguing, while brain imaging research shows that relaxation is not only restorative but actually leads [to] enhanced memory and facilitated intellectual understanding,” she says. In other words, while you’re participating in relaxing activities, your brain is still processing. “It’s important that the brain has had time to relax, restore, and reflect,” Seppala notes.

Other research suggests that you’re more creative when you’re tired (at night for early birds and in the morning for night owls). Seppala says by scheduling in time for activities you enjoy, just as you would other important tasks, you’ll be more efficient.

2. Declutter your mind.

It can feel really good to purge your inbox, but it doesn’t make much difference if your mind won’t stop racing–you’ve still got clutter. We know sleep has restorative effects for the body, but Seppala says most people forget you need to rest your mind as well. By relaxing the brain through meditation or otherwise unplugging from work, research has shown both health benefits and a boost in creative problem solving.

3. Help someone else.

Another way to free yourself from stress, improve your mood (another productivity enhancer), and get out of your head is to volunteer. Whether it’s simply doing a favor for a friend or colleague or a regular commitment to a charitable organization, being connected with others is key to productivity. In addition to being good for you (studies have shown positive mental and physical effects of volunteering), Seppala says networking and being connected to others may enhance your professional success. And that’s a win-win.

Hat tip: Psychology Today

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