Doing our best work without emptying our mental bank account
Something spoken about a lot in productivity writing is the concept of spending less time working: less time working whilst achieving all the things you want and need get done. It's often painted in ideal scenarios where a superstar founder or creative savant lives on zero sleep and finds ways to supercharge their body, mind, and routine to do their life’s work in next to no time leaving all the other hours for play.
Our lives rarely fit these moulds.
Although I often rise around 5:30 in the morning and enjoy to write whilst my mind is still fresh, it requires preparation to hit the ground running and absolutely a full night's sleep. (*1)
Tech culture and the age of always-on has painted the picture of needing to be ultra-productive to be deemed successful; an evolution of the ‘hard work’ born from laborious task-based jobs where ‘more hours meant more output’.
For the more creatively-driven among us it’s an odd paradigm when you really think about it since, multiple decades prior to the dawn of the web, the best minds of the time were not cramming in all the hours. They were allowing themselves time to build a routine of focus and of rest, the latter being extremely important.
First, we work…
As cited in the book 'Rest' by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang amongst other places, Charles Dickens et al did the majority of their life's work in short, orderly periods of time. Short periods which were carved out amidst a life of meaningful rest (noble leisure as named in Aristotle’s Politics) and contemplation. It’s a practice attributed to many writers and creative thinkers; settling in for work at the beginning of the day and working for a finite amount of time.
An approximate window of four hours has become a perceived maximum for serious creative thought. This time spent focussing could deliver as much ‘output’ as a day spent context switching and shallow-diving into challenging areas. (*2)
Breaking these four-hour chunks down into 90-minute cycles - something in tune with our natural rhythms - is a way to add further focus and definition to how we work. Allow your self breaks of 15 minutes following each cycle and you’ll be surprised what you can achieve in those four hours if you - literally - put your mind to it.
…then we rest.
We have worked. So … now what?
What comes next is meaningful rest. Real, disconnected down time away from the subjects in your head; away from the creative work which demands all of our mental faculties. It's time away from the graft of creativity, of problem solving, of world building.
History’s most creative minds have found rest in all kinds of places: walks through their woodland estates; up the highest peaks during extreme climbs; in the scores of music and dance. Active rest does not mean idleness or time spent on distracted activities until the next time you need to do some work.
It's time for our mind to both recharge and to process the things we've been working on without the need for our continued, exhaustive effort. Our unconsciousness is a beautiful thing.
Studies have shown that while we are at rest our mind can be as active as if we are doing our deepest, hardest creative work. Only, we're not expending that energy. Our brains are making connections, readying us for some 'Ah ha!' moments while we're looking the other way.
The act of meaningful rest extends to sleep, too. Committing to more sleep at night plus - if you are in a position to do so - grabbing a restorative nap during the day can not only invigorate you to approach an additional cycle of work, but can be a way to let your subconscious truly pick through some of the wicked problems you may be facing down.
Ready to Rest.
Doing our best, most meaningful work needn't be something which comes at an unreasonable cost. We don't need to sacrifice sleep to be at the top of our game and we needn’t sit glued to our screens expecting success to land in our laps. We don't need to compete with the super-entrepreneurs or social media stars for the top spot.
- Determine our routines and find ways to carve out the time to focus deeply on the things which will make a difference and push us forward creatively.
- Earning our rest and taking it, willingly, by devoting time to the short, focused working sessions.
- Give ourselves the time to think subconsciously, rest actively in pursuits we enjoy, and experience all that life has to offer us.
Get ready to unleash your greatest creative work; get ready to rest.
*1 - I’ve written previously about my family dynamic and having a child who requires support 24/7. The option to ‘sleep in’ is rarely afforded to me since my son is an early riser; I have tailored the rest of my routine around this.
*2 - I am under no illusion here that, for people who work in an 'employed environment', there are connotations and expectations which might prevent this mindset and practice of shorter, focussed working. I have been there: you can't just down tools at 1pm and call time in favour of going for a walk or reading a book. If you're in this position you can still find ways to carve out focus time (block your diary or decline the occasional meeting invitation) and engage in some rejuvenating 'micro rest' during the day.