Categories
Energy Fatigue Productivity

Does Taking Regular Breaks Really Increase Productivity?

Have a Break

Have some me time…

Over the years I’ve worked for many bosses that had the notion that if you weren’t tapping away on your keyboard or seen to be busy, then you were skiving or stealing company time. From what I remember this forced people to find things to be busy with that didn’t actually add any benefit to the companies, and people just took longer doing their work. Win win for everyone.

Things have got better, but not that much. During challenging economic times people become more aware of job insecurity and don’t want to be seen as the slacker. As a result not only are we working longer hours, but an increasing amount of people will tell on those who don’t appear to be pulling their weight.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some of us work in environments that judge you on your productivity or results rather than how long you were seen to be busy. My own anecdotal experiences from working in places were you are judged by your results based performance seemed to suggest that many people appeared to be content with their work, only putting in the extra time when really needed, and took much more breaks throughout the day, and generally in total spent more time actually working.

And there are a lot more research papers that come to a similar conclusion, in that those that took regular breaks were not only more productive but also more likely to be happier, healthier people.

Work Loads

When stopping to think about an issue or just to stare out the window it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone quip “Idle hands…” or “If you ain’t got enough to do, you can help me with this”, as if a 30 second decrease in visible activity would somehow unbalance the workplace.

And there’s the problem. It is difficult to quantify how productive someone is just by watching what they do. Everybody has different work styles, but a few things are common amongst most. One being that stress reduces peoples’ productivity and the quality of their work.

Another is that if people don’t feel secure in their position, they may resort to busy work that doesn’t really add any benefit to the business, but makes them look as if they are being productive. Some bosses have realised this and give their workers a lot to do so that they don’t have time to think about what they’re doing and so keep busy with boss sanctioned busyness.

Bosses aren’t the only ones to blame either. Some of us employees (myself included), have trouble organising and scheduling their workloads to what they can manage and as a result put themselves under unnecessary pressure, and without realising it, miss opportunities to take breaks throughout the day.

 

A Drag on Productivity

However, in case work demands are too high, employees tend to detach less from their work during off-job time and engage less in physical recovery activities. Health care managers should be aware that allocating too many work demands on their employees may be negative for their recovery and health. This may also have a destructive effect on their work performance and the quality of care.

DE JONGE, J. (2019). What makes a good work break? Off-job and on-job recovery as predictors of employee health. Industrial Health,58(2),142-152.

It’s not surprising that so many people are unknowingly exposing themselves to health risks as work demands increase, making it difficult for people to take a break (and some to actively skip breaks) in order to keep up to speed and not feel like a burden to their colleagues.

As this mode of working is increasingly becoming the norm, people are finding it difficult to switch off and relax after a long day.

One of the recovery problems is highly intuitive for many workers: difficulties to mentally disconnect from work. For instance, you may play with your children on the playground in the afternoon, talk with your partner about plans for the next weekend, or you may try to fall asleep after going to bed – but there is something in your mind that distracts you from these activities or impairs your ability to listen carefully: /thoughts about your work/. This experience of mental connectedness to one’s work through work-related thoughts during recovery periods has been described in the literature on stress and recover as low psychological detachment, work-related rumination, problem-solving pondering, and work reflection.

Wendsche J, de Bloom J, Syrek C, Vahle-Hinz T. Always on, never done? How the mind recovers after a stressful workday? German Journal of Human Resource Management. 2021;35(2):117-151. doi:10.1177/23970022211004598

By being always on for prolonged periods we increase the risk of adversely affecting our health in the short, medium and long term. Stress has been linked to:

  • Fear
  • Tension
  • Anxiety
  • An increase in cortisol
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • A decrease in the effectiveness of our immune system
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Clinical depression

And of course, the quality of our work as well as our productivity levels will also decrease. Working longer, appearing to be busy and not detaching from work robs us of our ability to work productively and robs us of our health.

Break Away

The Booster Break program was designed to interrupt prolonged sitting at the workplace. In a group context, interrupting prolonged sitting can be fun and enjoyable. Our previous research on the physical activity Booster Break showed that during a 6-month period, participants lost an average of 14 pounds (8% weight loss) and significantly increased their plasma high-density lipoprotein level from 50 to 57 (≥60 is optimal) . Both of these changes substantially reduce one’s risk of cardiovascular disease and premature mortality and can counteract the effects of the sedentary nature of work life. The Booster Break experience can be a catalyst for adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Wendell C. Taylor, Kathryn E. King, Ross Shegog, Raheem J. Paxton, Gina L. Evans-Hudnall, David M. Rempel, Vincent Chen, Antronette K. Yancey, Booster Breaks in the workplace: participants’ perspectives on health-promoting work breaks, Health Education Research, Volume 28, Issue 3, June 2013, Pages 414–425, https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyt001

Although not the be all of work stress and productivity, taking regular breaks at work can help mitigate a lot of the stressors that we experience through the day and can work as a useful starting point for learning how to detach from work so that we can enjoy our free times better.

Micro Breaks

Whether you realise it or not, we all take micro breaks from time to time throughout the day. Whether it’s checking our smart phones, browsing to a non work related website, or simply just staring out the window, there are times throughout the day where we unconsciously step away from our work tasks and take a few seconds break to recover. This is normal as it would be almost impossible to focus completely on work alone throughout the day. When reading up on this topic for this article I found a term that sums up what a lot of people feel when they look at something other than work whilst at work, ’Screen Guilt’. It’s a good term but a bad thing to feel. Guilt tends to lead people to either over compensate for a perceived wrongdoing or just give up and not bother. Neither are good, so rather than feel guilt, learn to accept that you can only focus on one thing for a limited time, so when you find yourself doing something else without realising, know that you should have taken a break to help yourself recover.

Scheduling

A lot of time is wasted thinking about what you are going to do rather than getting on with it. Not that I’m saying just jump in and do something, but rather plan your day, week, month or year ahead of time and allocate time slots to get the work done. Although it doesn’t work for everyone in every situation, using processes like Kanban, Scrum or the Pomodoro Technique help to keep you on target to get things done without burning yourself out. I set 25-30 minute blocks to get work done. Once a time block is done, I take a 5-10 minute break away from my machine and either go for a walk, make a personal call, or crack jokes with colleagues (if they’re free of course) before getting back to my next block. Everyone is different and it can take a little while to get used to, but once you get used to it, it helps.

End of Play

After work’s done, go for a walk, or have something non work related to do before you head home. By doing this you give yourself a chance to unwind before you see you friends / family / partner. When I wasn’t working from home I’d walk to the train station rather than take a bus, or if I drove in I’d park further away than usual so that I’d have time to let my thoughts go wherever they wanted which helped me leave work at work. When working at home, I have a routine of closing the lid of my laptop (which would send it to sleep), get up from my desk and then either stare out the window or jig about a bit, and on the odd occasion go for a walk.

Review

Does taking regular breaks really increase productivity? I would have to say yes and as a bonus side effect, by taking regular breaks whilst at work you help decrease the risk of suffering from stress and stress related diseases making you feel more relaxed whilst working, which in turn helps with your productivity and self esteem.

“Improved focus at work. Improved relationships with co-workers. Helped me to fit some physical activity into a busy day. Motivated me to start thinking about my health more. I really enjoyed them – gave me a chance to get away from the desk, de-stress, and enjoy my co-workers. We even had a lot of laughs which was good for morale!”

Wendell C. Taylor, Kathryn E. King, Ross Shegog, Raheem J. Paxton, Gina L. Evans-Hudnall, David M. Rempel, Vincent Chen, Antronette K. Yancey, Booster Breaks in the workplace: participants’ perspectives on health-promoting work breaks, Health Education Research, Volume 28, Issue 3, June 2013, Pages 414–425, https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyt001

Afterword

The paradox of work stress in America is this: What we value most is inherently stressful. If we understand what we value and how it contributes to work stress, we can begin to create strategies and interventions that are culturally sound and effective, and we will be better able to interpret the findings of our scientific literature. Efforts that work against the cultural values will fail to reduce work stress, whereas efforts that work in concert with our cultural values will succeed.

Peterson, M., & Wilson, J. (2004). Work Stress in America. /International Journal of Stress Management,/ /11(2),/ 91-113.
Categories
Energy Exercise Productivity Safety

Time to Keep Moving

Keep on Moving, Don’t Stop

Keep Going…

If you work in an office environment, are studying, or driving for a living, the chances are that you spend a lot of time sitting down throughout the day. Although you don’t mean to it’s easily done.

How many times have you been so engrossed in what you are doing that you lose track of time and forget to eat or drink, and before you know it, it’s time to stop for the day?

There have been countless times where I’m just in the flow zone and I feel the need to get everything I need to do done before I lose momentum. During times like these it’s very difficult to take a break and I get annoyed when someone disturbs me.

I’ve found unfortunately, that this mode of working can take its toll on you, especially if you find yourself working like this for long periods of time. Eventually something has to give, and for me it’s either the quality of my work, or my energy levels crash to the point where it’s a struggle to get anything done.

Fortunately there are things that you can do to help you manage these periods and consistently keep the level of your productivity high without compromising its quality and your health.

Get up, stand up
Photo by @jesslharbin via Twenty20

In The Moment

A common complaint that I get about myself when I’m working is that I zone out and get tunnel vision, only focussing on the task that I’m doing at that moment at the cost of shutting everyone out until I’m ready.

I find it funny because apparently in school I was the opposite, always staring out the window or joking about. Perhaps in school my purpose for being there wasn’t so clear, but nowadays I have a clear defined purpose for my life and when I’m doing things that further that purpose my brain tunes in and focuses on the task at hand.

Anyway, the point I’m making is that when you’re in the flow it can be difficult to stop and give yourself a breather, especially when you lose track of time or have the pressure of a heavy workload and a tight deadline.

Work and study loads have progressively increased and many of us feel trapped. On the one hand we want to get the work over and done with, but at the same time wish we didn’t have to do it.

The stress of entertaining these opposing views can lead us to a point where we are doing busy work rather than getting the task at hand done. What’s busy work? Anything that makes us look busy but doesn’t help us in completing our work or study in any meaningful way.

This takes time and energy away from what needs to be done whilst keeping us sitting at our desks and making us feel tired and unmotivated.

Sitting Your Life Away

Sedentary behaviour, as distinct from a lack of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, is an emerging health risk behaviour for the development of chronic diseases. Examples of sedentary behaviour include sitting, watching television, using a computer, and driving a car.
Overall, we identified a compelling case for sitting reduction to be included in clinical preventive advice as a key component of ‘active living,’ where adults and children are encouraged to ‘move more and sit less’ across different settings and locations.

Bauman, A., Chau, J., Ding, D., & Bennie, J. (2013). Too Much Sitting and Cardio-Metabolic Risk: An Update of Epidemiological Evidence. /Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports,/ /7(4),/ 293-298.

Another factor that we also should take into account is that away from our work and study lives, we spend a lot of our recreational and travel time sitting too. People are spending more time than they realise sitting down without realising that they are putting their well being at risk.

I’m very guilty of this. My day job involves me having to be at my desk for most of the working day. On the commute to work I may work on my laptop or read a book, which necessitates that I sit down (most of the time). And then by the time I’ve got home and spent family time (talking, eating, helping with homework – all mostly done whilst sitting), I then finish off any work that I have left over for my personal interests or play a game (again, in front of a screen of some sort, and sitting down).

Although it can feel that we are being productive and making the most of our work/study/life balance, we may overlook the cumulative effects of spending so much time sitting in one place, especially when having to complete work or getting caught up in our down times.

People sit while performing occupational tasks, reading, eating, using technologies such as computers and entertainment devices, and commuting to and from their destinations. Research indicates that daily total sitting and prolonged uninterrupted sitting times are highest among older adolescents, male adults, all adults over age 60, and people who are overweight or obese.
And sedentary behaviour affects the health of people regardless of their race or ethnicity and across various socioeconomic backgrounds.

Eanes, L. (2018). CE: Too Much Sitting: A Newly Recognized Health Risk. /AJN: American Journal of Nursing,/ /118(9),/ 26-34.

What’s concerning is that sedentary behavioural research seems to indicate that by not taking regular breaks and sitting uninterrupted for long periods of time increases the risks of:

  • Type2 diabetes (22%)
  • Metabolic syndrome (39%)
  • Colon cancer (8%)
  • Endometrial cancer (10%)
  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease

And this is regardless of how much exercise you do during the day. The research suggest that if you sit for more than 30 minutes without taking a moving break, or doing some form of exercise for at least 5 minutes, then you still increase the risk of negatively affecting your health!

Standup and Take Action

Thankfully, the solution is pretty straight forward for those of us who sit at desks for most of the day, just stand up for 5 minutes every 20-30 minutes you sit down. If you’re a driver it’s a bit more difficult, but you can reverse some of the ill effects of sitting down if you stand and move around every 60 minutes.

Linda Eanes in the American Journal of Nursing (118.9) 2018, outlined a few suggestions to help us take action immediately:

  • Use a standing desk.
  • Take frequent standing or walking breaks (standing or walking for five minutes for every 30 minutes of sitting, for example).
  • Stand when talking on a cell phone.
  • Reduce total daily television viewing time by standing or walking during commercial breaks.
  • Engage in hobbies that involve some physical activity.
  • Use social networks for self-report and supportive feedback.
  • Use computer software or smartphone apps that offer prompts to take brief physical activity breaks.
  • Wear physical activity monitors.

source: Eanes, L. (2018). CE: Too Much Sitting: A Newly Recognised Health Risk. /AJN: American Journal of Nursing, 118(9), 26-34.

Personally I’ve found my Apple Watch very helpful in this regard. The watch has a built in Activity app that prompts you to stand and do a set amount of exercise (take that as moving about) daily. You can set your goals and away you go. The stand goal only allows you set goals in hours, but its a good place to begin. If you have an Apple Watch, Tim Brookes wrote a very good How-To Geek guide on how to set you Activity goals, which you can find here.

In conjunction with Activity, I also use V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert (our own Apple Watch app). Because V-CAF monitors your tiredness levels and alerts you when you are tired, I use it as my optimal break alerter. Whenever I get a notification that my alertness levels are dropping, I get up and go for a walk or a stretch. That way I know that I’m not just powering through to get things done, and I keep the quality of my work high and my health on point.

Review

Most of us know that we shouldn’t be so sedentary, but our modern lifestyles tend to promote and reward sitting down, (especially for long periods of time).

  • Most of us sit too much and need to move around more both at home and whilst working.
  • After sitting for 30 minutes take a 5 minute break where you stand up, walk around or do some other form of physical activity.
  • Have hobbies that involve physical activity.
  • Track you activity levels by using wearable gadgets or your smartphone.

So don’t forget, as Soul II Soul said “Keep On Moving’”

Soul II Soul – Keep On Movin’ (Official Video)

Afterword

When you have decided that a thing ought to be done, and are doing it, never avoid being seen doing it, though the many shall form an unfavourable opinion about it. For if it is not right to do it, avoid doing the thing; but if it is right, why are you afraid of those who shall find fault wrongly?

Epictetus, The Enchiridion v35
Categories
Alert Energy Focus Productivity

Know the Optimal Time to Take a Break

Make Time For Yourself

You Deserve It…

The other day I was talking to a colleague about how currently there seems to be so much more to do. We went back and forth with anecdotes that confirmed how we felt and just as I felt my motivation spiralling downwards, my colleague happily exclaimed how thankful that he was going to be on holiday for two weeks.

With glee in his voice he told me to “enjoy holding the fort”, and wished me luck! Unfortunately for me, I still had two months to wait before my holiday, and cursed myself for not booking it sooner. Sulking looking at my screen I thought about the time that I don’t spend prioritising breaks that suit me when I work, particularly during the work day and both planned and unplanned vacations.

I scolded myself for letting things get to this point and then realised that lately I hadn’t been following my own advice, and became more focused on the amount of work rather than organising the work around the time that I had to complete it!

I stopped sulking and started to dig through my journal and past articles that I’d posted to see what I could do to get myself back in balance.

Know the optimal time to take a break
Photo by @johnlmc via Twenty20

Unbalanced Work

Work life balance is a mantra that has been espoused by the corporate world for a while now. Many companies make a point of letting potential new recruits know that they actively encourage and support a more healthy balance between private and work life.

In my time working with various institutions, I’ve had more than my fair share of emails, bulletins and workshops to help guide me to that elusive goal of a perfectly balanced professional and family life. Managers and team leads have encouraged me to take time off, and to be fair, some have been really supportive and understanding.

So why is it that with all this encouragement and support, that people find themselves feeling overloaded and overworked?

Possible reasons include:

  • Not wanting to let your colleagues, team or company down
  • Increasing workloads
  • Overly demanding bosses/managers
  • Bullying
  • and stress

Whatever the cause, the end result is that you can skip daily breaks and vacations for the “greater good” of the project or deadline. And when you are under pressure to get things done, work breaks can be easily overlooked.

 

No Play, Low Pay

We live in a time when professionals take fewer vacations than ever before and businesses are generally leaner, tending toward high productivity at the expense of flexibility. It’s hard to find a “convenient” time to get away, and when you do the stress of re-entry and catching up can wear you back down in almost no time.

Americans seem to be among the worst of professional workers around the world for leaving hard-earned vacation time on the table. Depending on which one of the many surveys you can read on this subject, something like 50% of American workers use less than their allotted vacation time…
Most of those same surveys also cite higher stress levels for people who do not take time off, and worse, some indicate that long-term career prospects are worse for people who cannot pull themselves away from the office or lab.

Atwood, S. (2015). Take a Break ‐ You Deserve It. Information Display, 31(4), 2-35.

I once worked at a firm where it was expected that you worked long days (12 – 16 hours) and weekends continuously for months. Knowing what I know now, I realise that this way of working was bordering on the cruel and abusive, but to keep us working and motivated we were told that we were the elites in our industry, the go getters, and by enduring work like that, were destined to be industry leaders in our fields.

Life was a blur. I couldn’t think clearly and as a result made more mistakes than necessary. This had knock on effects for the rest of the team, so I felt guilty and would work longer to help fix the mistakes that were caused by the tiredness I felt because of the long hours that we were working. And so it went on.

That was an extreme case but many people figure that productive work equals long hours, but in fact the opposite is true. The longer the hours you work, the more likely you are to make errors and reduce the quality of your work.

Furthermore, you open yourself up to stress and burn-out, which in their early phases, rather than impress your colleagues and bosses, can make them see you as incapable, lazy or needy. Eventually this can lead you to being overlooked for promotion and could even cost you your job (as well as your health and well being).

Some of the signs that you may be heading towards burnout include:

  • Not going to work or not getting out of bed
  • Losing interest in work that used to be exciting and interesting
  • Not meeting your basic needs – eating, exercising and family time
  • Making more mistakes than usual at work
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Being short tempered, intolerant or overly sensitive with colleagues
  • Catching illnesses more often
  • Not sleeping well
  • Feelings of low confidence

    source: Powell, K. (2017). Work–life balance: Break or burn out. Nature, 545(7654), 375-377.

Regular Breaks

A break from work is a period in the course of a workday during which employees shift their attention away from current tasks. A micro-break is a short break from work that lasts a few minutes and that is informal and less structured than, for example, a lunch break.

Employees initiate a micro-break themselves or deliberately decide to join a micro-break initiated by others.

Micro-breaks can encompass various kinds of activities, including, for example looking out the window, checking in with a favourite colleague, or going for a short walk.

Bosch, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2019). Should I Take a Break? A Daily Reconstruction Study on Predicting Micro-Breaks at Work. International Journal of Stress Management, 26(4), 378-388.

When going over my old notes about taking breaks I found that the most important thing about them, was to actually take them. In the past I’ve set up routines and work processes like using the Pomodoro or Kanban techniques where I work in 25 minute blocks with a 3 to 5 minute break between blocks. Although it works, when I’m really busy I sometimes forget to set the timer or turn the break alarms off without going on a break!

This is a big no no, and I was guilty of doing that more often than not. To get around that issue I now use our app V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert. It’s an Apple Watch app that is simple to use. I just press the V-CAF icon on my Apple Watch, choose the icon which best captures how I’m feeling and it starts monitoring my tiredness levels ready to notify me when my alertness decreases. I use it as my reminder to go for a break, which nowadays is a mixture between going for a quick walk outside, stretching and moving around, or having a quick 10-20 minute nap away from my desk.

As a consultant, I found it very difficult to take holidays as it meant that I would not only have to catch up with all the work that wasn’t being done whilst I was away, I also didn’t get paid for my vacations. To get around this I soon learnt that I needed to charge enough to cover my vacation times and book my vacations well in advance, so that I could organise my work around them.

If you’re an employee, don’t leave it until you feel like you can’t work another day, plan realistically for the times that suits you (and your family, if that’s a concern) best. And whilst on vacation, cut all ties with your place of work. That means, no looking at emails, or social media and taking calls. Be unreachable. Recently a colleague of mine was on holiday and he was called back in for an emergency in the office. Luckily for the bosses he was still in the country, unlucky for my friend, he had to explain to his wife and family why he was going back into work during their holiday (not a nice situation, I can tell you). Let me just say, nobody can reach him when he’s on holiday or over the weekend since that incident!

As a side benefit of taking regular breaks you’ll get a better sense of the best times that you work. During your workdays, plan your most difficult tasks around the times when you are most alert and productive, and routine work that doesn’t take too much brain power for when you’re less alert.

Review

Ultimately, you have to listen to what your body is telling you and not force yourself to work longer than is optimal for you and your productivity.

It won’t be easy to just change everything all at once, so take small steps and progressively move towards achieving a work-life balance that suits your health and wellbeing best.

Afterword

A micro-brake offers individuals the possibility to reward themselves with an activity they like, such as texting with their friends or enjoying their favourite tea. Because activities individuals are fond of have a remunerating character, micro-breaks possess the potential to provide small but immediate rewards during the workday.
Such rewards may help recover affective-motivational resources that were depleted while working.

Bosch, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2019). Should I Take a Break? A Daily Reconstruction Study on Predicting Micro-Breaks at Work. International Journal of Stress Management, 26(4), 378-388.
Categories
Energy Fatigue Focus Irritability Lethargy Productivity Sleep Tension

Wanted: A Fully Rested You!

Work Hard, Rest Harder

Be The Real You..

Lately, I’ve not felt at my best. I’ve had plenty to do, and just got on my grind to get things done, but ultimately it didn’t feel like my best work. It’s my bread and butter stuff, not my groundbreaking exciting work.

In contrast, when I’m in “the zone” work just flows. New ideas seem to come effortlessly, new connections between different ideas are clearer to see, and generally I just feel energised.

The other day, I just decided to stop and think about the differences between the two conditions flow and grind. I looked at old journal entries during both conditions and found that the major issue that stood out between the two, is that in one state I was well rested and the other not so much. I’ll leave you to guess which state corresponded to each experience.

After reacquainting myself with what I already know, which is a good exercise to do by the way, I wanted to write a post that I would come back to, to help me remember that a fully rested me is the best me to produce my best work. It’s obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be said. I hope that you find this post as useful as I intend it to be for me.

Productivity Sucks

Why are you working so hard? Is it because you are full of energy and ideas and just ready to unleash it, or is it because you have expectations to meet or goals to achieve?

Regardless of your reasons, you can get caught up in what you are doing and unwittingly neglect the rest that you need to continue producing high quality work. Working long hours, not taking enough breaks and cutting into your sleep can become habitual, just because your self talk says things like “I’ll go on a break in a minute” or “I’ll do it this time and catch up on my sleep after I finish what I’m doing”.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with working hard, it can be difficult for some of us to break away from what we are doing because of a compulsion to want to do better, do more, and achieve higher. Worryingly, this approach is increasingly becoming the accepted way to work or study, and the rise of hustle culture is not helping.

The pressure to succeed can be heightened for some people due to the proliferation of images and stories that seem to validate that working harder than your competition will ultimately lead to success, implying that if you’re not successful, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough.

It is not uncommon for people to feel guilty for taking a break whilst at work, even though they are entitled to it, or for working long hours so as to show that they are not just working, but over working because they are overachievers.

A 34-year-old tax attorney was admitted to the medical services with a complaint of chest pain. Four months earlier, he had noted the onset of leg pains, followed a month later by constant substernal and left-sided chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, and tremor…

It was estimated that for at least three years he had worked 80 to 100 hours per week. He took no vacations and seldom took any weekends or days off…

The patient described himself as someone who had to “rely on hard work rather than brains”…

He feared being in a position where he would be dependent on anyone else and believed that he had to accept all work that was referred to him, or he might never get any more.

Rhoads, J. (1977). Overwork. /JAMA,/ /237(24),/ 2615-2618.

The Frustrating Grind

Continually working long hard hours eventually leads to diminishing returns and can be harmful to your health. I have found that it can be difficult to realise that by spending more time working rather than stopping to take a break and making sure that I get enough rest (sleep and recreation), that it is actually taking me longer to get work done and reducing the quality of the work that I do.

The really annoying thing for me is that it’s usually when I take a step back from what I’m doing that I realise I’m reducing my efficiency by working longer instead of smarter. Sometimes people can tell you that you need to take it easy and slow down, but it’s difficult to acknowledge when your main priority becomes your work.

But, as the saying goes, if you don’t hear you must feel, and your body will give you warning signs that will increase in seriousness if you don’t stop and listen to what your body is telling you. Look out for the following signs of being overworked:

  • Increase in fatigue
  • Depression
  • Inability to sleep
  • Irritability
  • Loss of libido
  • Inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities (anhedonia)
  • Anxiety
  • Diminished concentration
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Memory impairment
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Headaches
  • Chest pains
  • Confusion
  • Crying
  • Excessive smoking
  • General aches and pains
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath

source: Rhoads, J. (1977). Overwork. /JAMA,/ /237(24),/ 2615-2618.

A Rested You

If you are feeling overworked and stressed you may first want to seek professional help from your medical practitioner of choice. Don’t hesitate or say that it’s not that serious; delaying seeking professional advice can be costly, and after reading some of the case studies in a study by John M. Rhoads, MD that was published in 1977 (which was the major study I referenced when writing this post), I would strongly advise that you do. There may be other underlying issues that if addressed, at the very least will help in addressing some of your overworking issues.

There are some things that you can do by yourself to address the issue apart from the obvious of not working so long:

  • Set limits to how long you work per day, and don’t work on weekends. It is important that you stick to these rules, no exceptions. But start off small. Eventually work towards a 40 hour week if you work 50, or 50 hours if you work more than 60. Don’t jump all in, remember this is a change that you will keep up for the rest of your working life.
  • Rethink your attitude towards work and the time that you spend there. For example, does your family or social life suffer because you are constantly working? You may need help with this one, so don’t feel afraid to speak to a councillor or someone you can trust about this.
  • Make a point of going on vacation (even if your vacation is to stay local, but do no work or work related activities)!
  • Schedule for recreation time. Find out what you like to do (apart from work – no cheating), and make time to do it. Join a club or do a team sport that takes you away from the working environment, and demands just enough attention so that you have to go regularly to improve and practice at home (for me that is doing a martial art, which helps me to get rid of tension and helps with my breathing, focus and concentration skills in life and work in general).

Review

Resist the urge to work for longer than you need to. Redirect the energy you spend working long hours to organising your work life around actually living.

Stick to your work hours (9-5 Monday to Friday for example) and take regular breaks throughout your working day.

Schedule time for yourself and family/friends so that you avoid becoming one dimensional and have interests outside of work.

But ultimately, reconnect with yourself and be true to you.

Afterword

Many persons are able to work equally long hours without becoming ill. Those who become ill are those who ignore their body’s signals for rest, recuperation, and recreation.
One must keep in mind that people differ individually in their amounts of available energy, recuperative powers, and in enjoyment of work

Rhoads, J. (1977). Overwork. /JAMA,/ /237(24),/ 2615-2618.
Categories
Productivity Sleep

No Time For Sleep!?

You’d Better Get Yourself Some

Boost your sleep, boost your productivity…

There are times in our life when we find that we have too much to do and something has to give. Until a few years ago, that something that gave was my sleep!

Play hard, work hard was my mantra, and I certainly did that! So whenever I had a tight deadline or too much to get done, I would just stay up and work late and then wake up early and continue where I left off.

This worked out great for a short while but came back to bite me in a big way later on. And I’m not unique it this respect. According to a number of studies, an increasing amount of us are getting less sleep now than we did 10 years ago.

Nobody knows why this is the case but we do know that the medium to short term effects on our lives personally, and the cost to society as a whole, are too high a price to pay.

Time To Get Ready, checking a watch during the evening
Photo by @chrisramsay.feedback via Twenty20

Duration and Quality Decrease

Compared to 2010, the odds of short sleep duration were statistically significantly higher in 2018 despite adjusting for demographic characteristics (25% higher) and occupational characteristics (22% higher). In 2018, the highest levels of short sleep duration were found for the following categories of jobs: protective service and military (50%), healthcare support occupations (45%), transport and material moving (41%), and production occupations (41%).

Khubchandani, J., & Price, J. (2020). Short Sleep Duration in Working American Adults, 2010–2018. /Journal of Community Health,/ /45(2),/ 219-227.

There’s no getting around it, we need enough good quality sleep; but the pressures of life, work and/or studying may all be contributing to us not getting the sleep that we need.

Research has found that there may be a link between stress and a decrease in the amount of hours that we spend sleeping. People suffering from stress often find it difficult to get to sleep, or discover that they often wake up during the night and by the time it gets to the morning, still feel tired.

Then there are those of us who, due to economic reasons, work late or night shifts. This is extremely difficult to do as we have to fighting against our own body clock, which is telling us to go to sleep. Once the night shift is finished, sleeping through the day may help catch up on some of our sleep, but the quality and quantity is often reduced, which often means returning to work not fully rested.

Risking Your Health

Almost a third of working adults in the U.S. get inadequate quantities of sleep. Most likely, those who work long hours, engage in changing shifts, or those in high stress professions that have minimal control over their work and life schedules are at risk of short sleep duration and the subsequent social, physical and mental health consequences of sleep problems.

Khubchandani, J., & Price, J. (2020). Short Sleep Duration in Working American Adults, 2010–2018. /Journal of Community Health,/ /45(2),/ 219-227.

By not getting enough sleep, you are putting your health and well being at risk. I know it’s difficult, and I used to just push through the tiredness to meet my deadlines, and because I did it often I thought I was doing well. It was only when colleagues pointed out that some of my work wasn’t up to my usual standard that I took a step back to see what was going on.

When you are stressed, tired and under pressure, it is easy to miss the tell tale signs that your body is giving you, trying to warn you that you need to stop and take a break.

Continuing to work when you’re not fully rested makes working more difficult and can be dangerous to you and potentially others. Tiredness often makes things worse as it impairs our ability to think clearly and slows down our cognitive abilities.

It’s logical to assume that if we can’t think as clearly as we can when we are fully awake, then our productivity will also suffer when we are tired. Tiredness also increases the likelihood that we will make more errors at work, which can be costly for our business or employer as well as to you.

The cost to your health cannot be overlooked. Just by not getting more than 7 hours of good quality sleep you are more likely to suffer from the following chronic diseases than those who sleep 7 hours or more (per 24 hour period):

What You Can Do

The simple answer, get more good quality sleep; but I know from personal experience that it’s not so straight forward. Work, study or life pressures make it difficult for us to do what we know is best for us.

So, what to do?

  • Sleep
    • Go to sleep and wake up at regular times
    • Don’t work past 9pm if you can
    • Avoid consuming caffeine past midday (or better yet, give it up)
    • Make your bedroom as dark as possible
    • Don’t read, watch tv or take gadgets to bed
    • Keep your bedroom as quiet as possible
    • Make sure you are cool in bed
  • Whilst Awake (during the day, usually)
    • Take regular nap breaks (but no more than 20 mins max)
    • Do more exercise during the day, (use at least two breaks a day for walking outside or stretching – even a 10 minute walk can help improve your sleep at night)
    • Keep yourself mentally active throughout the day (keep your mind busy and stimulated)
    • Eat healthier foods (fruits, vegetables, non processed meats, eggs, butter, etc) rather than processed foods with lots of sugar and salt added to them
    • Know when you are tired (it helps to head to bed when you are actually tired, rather than just because of a schedule. Also knowing when your tired throughout the day can help you time your nap breaks strategically, which in turn helps your focus and productivity – see what we say about this topic in the review)
  • Shift workers
    • Where possible, explain to your employer the benefits of a well rested employee and ask for more considerate shift planning (for example no back to back shift working – one week late shift, the next week early shift)
    • Have regular health checks to make sure that you’re not stressing your body to its limits and risking a chronic illness.

Review

It’s easy to overlook when we are tired and as a result put ourselves at risk from chronic diseases and mental health issues. Our health is primarily our responsibility and as a result, it would be wise for us to prioritise our sleep and exercise before our work (but this is easier said than done).

Which brings me to the issue of knowing when you are tired. We developed V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert(an Apple Watch app) to help you know when your tiredness levels are increasing so that you can take the appropriate actions necessary to either wake yourself up, or to take a break. V-CAF also links to your iPhone and iMac or Apple Laptop so that you can be notified when your alertness levels are dropping.

I hope that the points that have been highlighted in this post will be useful to you in your personal and professional life, if so, please comment below.

Thanks 🙂

Afterword

“Sleep is an investment in the energy you need to be effective tomorrow.”

Tom Roth, source: https://everydaypower.com/sleep-quotes/
Categories
Anxiety Productivity Tension

5 Hacks That Combat Work Related Stress.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Away from your desk…

Most businesses need to be profitable in order to survive. Whether we are an employee or self employed, the level of our productivity is either directly or indirectly linked to the ability of the business to create profits.

What this translates into in our real world experiences is that our productivity is more than likely being measured and assessed to calculate our effects on the bottom line.

Work performance measuring can lead to an increase in the amount of pressure that we feel which ultimately can have detrimental effects on our performance and therefore reduce our productivity levels.

In these challenging times there’s even more need for the worker to think out of the box and come up with solutions that will help restore their confidence in their ability to meet their work demands without harming their health and wellbeing.

Loss of Productivity

Scores from PSS (Perceived Stress Scale) and the HWQ (Health and Work Questionnaire), appeared to be inversely correlated; higher stress scores were associated significantly with lower productivity scores.
This negative association was… especially strong for work satisfaction.

Bui, T., Zackula, R., Dugan, K., & Ablah, E. (2021). Workplace Stress and Productivity: A Cross-Sectional Study.Kansas Journal of Medicine,14,42-45.

It can seem to come from nowhere. You’ve been focused on your work and getting things done, but for some reason you either seem unable to produce anything or the quality of your work is far less than you expect from yourself. How did that happen?

Work pressure usually doesn’t hit you all at once, but gradually. Work deadlines, heavy workloads and performance targets all take their toll. There’s also your life outside of work, which may also indirectly contribute to your work pressure.

And then there’s the fact that everybody’s response to pressure at work is different. What you may perceive as a challenge may be perceived by a colleague as a major stressor. It’s telling, when even the scientific and legal arenas can’t even agree on what stress is and how to legally define it.

Regardless of the debate on what is or is not stressful, your lack of productivity can itself be a major cause of stress which further compounds the problem.

 

Stress

Although it’s difficult to define a universal definition of what stress is or isn’t, there are signs that you should be aware of that can help you determine whether or not you or someone you know are stressed. By being able to identify these signs, you can help relieve the pressure by taking the necessary steps to correct the situation. We built V-CAF precisely for this reason.

Not all of the signs are in of themselves confirmation of stress, but if your productivity is falling and the symptoms appear regularly, then they may be good indicators that you need to take a step back and contemplate what you observe, and possibly consult your medical advisor.

Some of the physical signs of stress include but are not limited to:

  • Fatigue
  • Tension headaches
  • Stomach problems
  • Backpain
  • High blood pressure and
  • Sweaty palms

Non physical signs include:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Helplessness
  • Depression
  • Frustration
  • Indecisiveness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Behaving out of character

During difficult social, political and economic times, it can be hard to ask for help, but where possible, speak to your counsellor or medical advisor, (or even someone you can trust). Ignoring the situation doesn’t help and exposure to persistent stressful environments can have both negative shot and long term effects on your health.

Strategies

By acknowledging that you are stressed, you have taken a very big step in the right direction to address the issue. The next step is to speak with your boss/manager and discuss the issues that are causing you stress. This isn’t always possible (especially if your boss isn’t known for being understanding, or if you work for yourself), so the next best thing is to take steps that will help you relieve the pressure you feel at work. (I would also state that if your employer doesn’t display any empathy towards the situation, that it might be a sign to start looking for a new job. You only live once, and being in a miserable work environment not only affects you, but your work colleagues, friends and family, let alone the damage you are doing to your self esteem and health).

So, in no particular order of relevance, here is a list of 5 things that you can do to help relieve stress at work:

  • Prevention
    Understand and know what causes you to be stressed. Write them down, make a list and then list the things that you can do to avoid meeting these situations when you are at work.
    Also have a backup plan for when you do meet them (which will happen once in a while). If you are stuck keep reading on and use some the tactics outline below to help construct your plan.
  • Exercise
    One of the most overlooked stress busting tools available to us all is exercise. A build up of tension usually accompanies stress. By exercising, we help to release tension in our body. And it doesn’t have to be a full body workout either (although those help too). A 10 to 25 minute brisk walk is just enough effort to get your heart pumping harder, and you breathing in deeper to make a difference.
  • Eat well
    Reduce or avoid eating processed foods where possible and eat good whole foods. The general rule of thumb is that if it walks, flies, crawls or grows from the earth, and doesn’t have heaps of processed ingredients added to them, then you’re good to go.
    So why not processed foods? Processed foods contain a lot of refined sugar which spikes your insulin levels causing you to have “sugar highs” and crashes throughout the day, making it more difficult for you to concentrate on your work.
  • Good quality sleep
    Make sure you get enough sleep every night, of the highest quality. How do you do that? Eat well, exercise and go to bed at regular times daily. Also make sure you’re not overly warm and avoid alcohol.
  • Avoid alcohol
    Yep. I mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again. Although not harmful in moderation, alcohol interferes with your sleeping pattern and the following hangover does nothing for your concentration and productivity levels. Even a relatively small amount of alcohol consumed the night before can have adverse effects on your productivity the next day.
  • Manage workload
    List and prioritise the work that needs to be completed, for the week, day and in some cases by the hour. Discuss this with work colleagues and your boss so that you can organise your work in such a way as to eliminate any bottlenecks that can lead to frustration.
    Using process like Scrum, Agile and Kanban can help improve both individual and team productivity in a more efficient and stress free manner. I’ve used (and still use) all of them in varying degrees and find that without them work would be very difficult.
  • Take regular breaks away from your workplace
    The usual mantra of this blog, and for good reason too. Taking a break away from your desk (by going for a walk, or meditation , and taking a nap), can actually increase your focussing and memory powers. Don’t just keep pushing on forward regardless, take the time to be nice to yourself and then come back to your work. I get tunnel vision whilst at work and get very frustrated when working whilst being tired and don’t realise it. Tools such as V-CAF help by notifying you when your alertness levels drop, to take a break.
  • Positive outlook
    Difficult to do in the moment when you are stressed, but keeping a positive frame of mind helps you to overcome the stress that you will inevitably experience. This is why in point one (Prevention) we said that you should write down what to do if you find yourself in a stressful situation. If you have this you can be reminded to be positive because you have the answer and know what to do. Plus being prepared helps you to have a positive outlook as you consciously know that you have a plan.

Review

I can’t count it seems. But I hope that you take heed of my advice and also go and do some more research for yourself and experiment with what works for you.

If you are stressed and feel too overwhelmed to cope, make a point of scheduling an appointment with your doctor or medical advisor immediately, as it may be a sign of something more serious.

Finally I leave you with the list of the main points outlined in this post.

  • Prevention
  • Exercise
  • Eat well
  • Good quality sleep
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Manage workload
  • Take regular breaks away from your workplace
  • Positive outlook

Afterword

“ Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. ”

Epictetus, source: Daily Stoic
Categories
Focus Productivity

How Do You Become More Focused And Productive?

Start By Getting Out More

Small steps, one after the other…

Being focused and being productive go hand in hand, so when people’s productivity begins to wane it usually has something to do with losing focus. Unfortunately these days it’s very easy to be distracted as there are a myriad of ways to unintentionally reduce our levels of concentration.

Social media and smart phones are the usual suspects that routinely get blamed for the apparent decrease in attention spans and there is a lot of research that seems to validate this point. But if this is the case then why do people who don’t use smart phones regularly also find it difficult to focus?

On a surface level it makes sense to blame this lack of attention on our digital gadgets, but looking deeper into how to increase one’s concentration skills I found that there’s more to it than just packing away your smart phone.

Get With It And Get Out
Photo by @kristin12 via Twenty20

The Blame Game

Doing a search for “smart phones attention span” brings back a lot of headlines that imply that our smart phone usage is responsible for the decrease in people’s ability to focus as well as they used to.

As a result, parents, teachers and some employers restrict the use of smart phones in an attempt to stop the apparent rise in the loss of focus and concentration skills.

However, anecdotally I’ve found that these measures don’t help but can actually make things worse. Rather than turning focus onto a particular activity, restricting phone usage can make people focus on the fact that they don’t have access to their device and make it harder for them to concentrate.

Then there’s the fact that some smart phone usage can actually help productivity. In my case, I listen to music or binaural beats which help me from time to time to zone out and concentrate on what I’m doing.

Listening to binaural beats has been found to have real benefits for increased focus, attention, cognition and memory. You can find binaural beats playlists for productivity on Spotify or YouTube. Binaural beats require headphones because the frequency is created from a difference in inputs between your ears.

Serena Poon, Leveraging Mindful Practices To Maximize Productivity

 

Not Paying Attention

Also note that people that are “glued to their phones” seem to be very focused on whatever they are doing on their devices. It’s common to see people fully engrossed in activities on their devices, to the point that they can forget that other people are around them.

Clearly this doesn’t sit well with the view that people are distracted and have shorter attention spans, if the same said users spend a lot of time using their devices. So is the problem the gadgets and the apps running on them or is it something else?

To improve our focus and productivity we have to then figure out what it means to lose our ability to concentrate. Classic signs include:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased fidgeting
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Being unable to complete tasks
  • Carelessness
  • Unable to think clearly

By noticing how addicted someone is to their devices is missing the point of what is causing a loss of focus and therefore productivity. Although excessive interaction with smart phones may be part of the problem, it is not “the root” problem.

Although I haven’t found any research papers that prove this hypothesis directly, there may be a link between the rise of sleep disorders and anxiety with the loss of concentration and the reduction in productivity levels.

In fact, in earlier blog posts we highlight how being tired robs you of achieving your optimal levels and the cost of sleep disorders for an economy.

“ Insomnia may be responsible for over $63 billion in absenteeism and presenteeism, and accidents and errors by people suffering from insomnia may result in an additional $31 billion lost annually. A recent report estimates that undiagnosed sleep apnea in the U.S. costs society $150 billion each year. The RAND Corporation has estimated that collectively, costs attributable to sleep deficiency in the U.S. exceeded $410 billion dollars in 2015, equivalent to 2.28% of gross domestic product.”

Calculating the Cost of Poor Sleep – Methodology, Nation Safety Council

Reversing The Trend

There are a lot of recommendations on what society and legislators should do to combat this problem, but thankfully you don’t have to wait for them to get around to solving this issue.

As a responsible individual you can implement some very straightforward lifestyle changes that eventually will increase your ability to focus and hopefully get you back on track.

  • Work with your circadian rhythm
    Sounds complicated but it’s not. Make sure you get to bed to give yourself enough time to rest and have a deep sleep. In general your body starts to slow down between 9pm and 11pm. Get to bed between those hours and by 2am – 3am your body should be in the quality deep part of sleep (REM or rapid eye movement). From 7am – 8am your body starts to wake up and get ready for the day. By making you bed and wake up times routine, you train your body to get the most out of your nights sleep.
  • Get outside more
    Get as much daylight as is possible throughout the day. This helps your body to realise that you are awake and active (especially if you are moving or exercising) and helps you to sleep better throughout the night, as well as giving your body enough time to generate vitamin D directly from the sun.
  • Avoid stimulants as much as possible
    Make a point of avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol as although they may give you a temporary boost, in the long term they are detrimental to your concentration and productivity levels.

Review

Finally to answer the question of this post, to be more focused and productive, eat well, sleep better and get outside more.

Afterword

“Go outside. Don’t tell anyone and don’t bring your phone. Start walking and keep walking until you no longer know the road like the palm of your hand, because we walk the same roads day in and day out, to the bus and back home and we cease to see. We walk in our sleep and teach our muscles to work without thinking and I dare you to walk where you have not yet walked and I dare you to notice. Don’t try to get anything out of it, because you won’t. Don’t try to make use of it, because you can’t. And that’s the point. Just walk, see, sit down if you like. And be. Just be, whatever you are with whatever you have, and realise that that is enough to be happy.
There’s a whole world out there, right outside your window. You’d be a fool to miss it.”

Charlotte Eriksson, You’re Doing Just Fine .

Categories
Energy Exercise Fatigue Focus Productivity Sleepiness Tiredness

How to Get Going

Or How to Get Things Done

Start now, worry later

Sometimes I find it difficult to start getting things done. It is annoying, because I either know what needs to be done, or what I want to do, but just lack the enthusiasm or motivation to do it.

Then there’s the times when I get things going but seem to run out of steam. It seems to take ever increasing amounts of effort just to carry on. It feels like my batteries are running on low and nothing I tried seemed to make any difference.

Eventually I found a link between my daytime sleepiness and the amount of work that I could get done. Slowly but surely, by addressing the factors that were causing me to be tired I was able to turn things around and reduce the amount of times when I just couldn’t get started.

Lets Get Going
Photo by @betobordoy via Twenty20

The Struggle

If you’re anything like me or experienced finding it difficult to get started then you know how frustrating it can be, whether it’s a task that you don’t look forward to or something that you need to get done, but just don’t know how to start.

The more you ponder on it the harder it becomes to get it done. Your mind can be caught in a loop of thinking about starting, not knowing where to start, then choosing to start and then wondering if you’ve started in the right place or not. Followed by stopping and then starting again, and so it continues.

Do this a couple of times and then just the thought of having to think about starting starts to make you feel drained and unmotivated to continue, which of course is not going to help you finish what you haven’t fully started.

It’s at these moments that I find myself yawning and feeling tired and wanting to go to sleep. But, here’s the thing; are you feeling tired because of trying to start the task or is the task hard to start because you are tired?

The Risk

When looking over my notes from the past when I’ve been at my most productive, a common factor that kept coming up was that I felt energised and it was as if I was fully charged, so much so that I found it difficult to stop and slow down. But whenever I was struggling to work I felt more tired than usual.

Researchers have known for a long time that daytime tiredness reduces your work efficiency and accuracy and may be either an indicator or cause of other health issues.

What is already known about this topic


– Excessive daytime sleepiness is a risk factor for various physical and mental disorders.


– Excessive daytime sleepiness is associated with low productivity, various traffic and industrial accidents caused by impaired attentiveness/judgement, tiredness, and low morale.


– In addiction to having adverse effects on an individual’s health and social life, excessive daytime sleepiness is a critical social and economic problem.

Suzuki, K., Ohida, T., Kaneita, Y., Yokoyama, E., & Uchiyama, M. (2005). Daytime sleepiness, sleep habits and occupational accidents among hospital nurses. /Journal of Advanced Nursing,/ /52(4),/

I decided to note how I felt as well as the quality and quantity of the sleep I was getting during my work stints to see if there was any link between that and how difficult I found it to get my work started and finished.

Over time it became increasingly obvious to me that the periods where my sleep had been disturbed or cut short seemed to match up with the quality of my work and how easy I found it to get things done. In one instance I noted that my motivation was extremely low and coincided with a period where I didn’t get much sleep due to some personal issues.

The lack of good quality sleep can be linked to:

  • Difficulty focussing
  • Reduced motivation
  • Inhibited problem solving skills
  • Confusion
  • Bad memory
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty communicating

And may increase the risk of:

  • Heart attacks
  • Strokes
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • And obesity

Steps to Take

If you’ve been following this blog you’ll start to realise that there’s a common theme here… insure that you consistently have enough quality and quantity of sleep.

I would be as bold to state that by taking your sleep, diet and exercise seriously you will greatly improve not just your productivity but quality (and in some cases quantity of life).

And when I say seriously I don’t mean stern and hard, I mean that you prioritise those areas in your life, without getting stressed and obsessive about them. Approach everything with balance.

As a result of my study and writing for this blog, here are some of the processes that I’ve found helpful in getting me over the hump of starting to get going.

  • Note the purpose of what you want to achieve
    It greatly helps to know why you are doing something. By explicitly stating what you want to achieve you help give your mind focus to getting those things done.
  • Just Do Something
    Paralysis by analysis was a common theme that was being banded around when I was at university and the best lecturers let us know that we should start the assignments as soon as we received them. Why? Well it turns out that sometimes the best way to tackle something is to just do something and see what happens. Don’t get caught up in your mind getting stuck in a loop about what, then if. The act of doing something opens up your mind to getting on with the work no matter what. Now tie this point to the one above and you’ll be doing something with purpose which in turn will help you to focus on getting things done.
  • Make sure you are well rested
    I’ve mentioned this above and say it again, good quality sleep, not just quantity. Make sure you get enough of both. If you are close to a deadline or it’s difficult to get enough rest, remember the first two points and do something with purpose and take it from there. The best thing to do is to make sure that you get to bed on time to get enough good quality rest.

Review

I’ve found that the difficulty in getting started is usually down to me being tired or run down and not realising it. Overthinking starting is also an issue for me and that alone can drain my motivation.

What has helped me in the past and now is to:

  • Explicitly state what I want to achieve
  • Start anyway, and fix things that need to be fixed once I’ve got something done
  • And to get as much quality rest as I can possibly get

Afterword

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Steve Jobs

Categories
Alert Caffeine Caffeine Alternative Energy Fatigue Focus Productivity Staying Awake

A New Paradigm For Staying Productive

V-CAF The New Productivity Hack

Stay Productive

It would be an understatement to say that in the past I found it challenging to stay consistently productive and hitting all my objectives. Not that I’ve magically got to this fantastical place and that now I’m some sort of productivity god that can’t be stopped.

No, presently where I find myself is a considerably better place than I was but there is always room for improvement. It was a long hard slog to get here and it can sometimes feel daunting thinking about just how much more I need to do to be at my optimal, let alone knowing if it is even possible to get to such a place.

Which brings us nicely to the theme of this post, productivity and what I’ve used to help improve my productivity. Along the way there’s been a lot of trial and error, but the good thing is that by experimenting and having deep thoughts about how I could improve it, led to the creation of our Apple Watch app, V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert.

Stay Productive
Photo by @jesslharbin via Twenty20

Full Steam Ahead

For most of my life it feels like I’ve been chasing deadlines or targets. In school it was to get good grades, in work it was to progress my career or earn more cash. I rarely took the time to think about why I’d chosen this approach, I just got on with it.

And I wasn’t the only one. Most people around me in the different environments that I’ve found myself in also had a similar approach. Whenever I felt in a reflective mood, usually after just making a deadline, I would speak with colleagues who all had their own way of dealing with productivity issues, which funnily enough were just variations on a few common themes.

Make lists, prioritise tasks, drink coffee, give yourself enough time, are some of the usual suspects that keep coming up. And although they all work to a degree, to me, none of them dealt with the actual underlying issue and all wouldn’t work as well as expected at a certain point.

Hitting the Wall

Prioritising tasks help and this is something that I just do. I’d organise my work in order of importance and away I’d go. I definitely recommend organising your tasks, but not to spend too much time doing it. And then there’s the fact that even though I’ve organised my work, there’s always (without fail), something else that comes up that forces me to have to reorganise and spend more time not actually doing the work, but doing the work around the work.

Drinking coffee has and still does work, but not in a sustainable way. When I was feeling tired and demotivated to get things done, then having a coffee would help perk me up. Things would get done, but only for a short period of time before I needed another shot of caffeine to get me through to the next dip. Now there’s nothing wrong with having a coffee once in a while, but to use it as a crutch to increase productivity just doesn’t work. The most obvious reason is that the more coffee (or caffeine) that you drink the more your body increases it’s tolerance to the drug leading you to need more of it to get the same productivity results.

Then there’s the addiction aspect. Many people feel that they can give up caffeine at the drop of a hat and don’t believe that they are addicted. I was one of those people until I actually tried to go without it for a while. That was quite an experience, I can tell you. Trying to give up caffeine can effect your productivity too as the withdrawal effects can make you feel terrible but you’d put it down to tiredness or not feeling well. Either way, I didn’t want my productivity to be dependent on the amount of a substance that I’d consume.

Changing Perspectives

So, what to do? What actually works? I tried numerous workflows and found that the Pomodoro Technique worked well when using Kanban (lean process management) and helped with giving me clear timeframes and slots to complete work. Giving myself more time to get things done and prioritising work did help, but something else was missing.

Then, during a break, I was walking in a park and enjoying the green when I realised that I was looking outside of myself for a solution to an internal problem. Earlier that day my boss had spoken about me looking tired and falling asleep at my desk. The problem was that I was working long hours and cutting into my down time before going to sleep and then waking up early to try and get as many hours as possible to throw at the problem.

What I needed was to step back and get more rest in order to get things done properly. As soon as I got back to my desk I started looking for information on sleep, productivity and daytime tiredness. It became something of an obsession for me as I started finding that when I started implementing the information that things got better. Productivity picked up and I felt much less stressed and more content with my work.

I began getting better quality sleep, exercising more, eating better and taking more breaks whilst at work. Whilst monitoring my mood and the amount of work that got done I started to realise that this was the missing component that was needed to sustainably maintain my level of productivity.

But being the stubborn kind of guy that I am, I found myself sometimes working through my breaks and not stepping away. When I did this, my stress levels went up and my productivity went down! Speaking with a colleague about this we came up with the idea to make an app that unlike any work flow process, actually worked with your body to help optimise work slots around your alertness levels.

That led us to create V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert, an Apple Watch app, which is now available on iOS and macOS, that notifies you when your alertness levels are decreasing so that you can stop and revitalise yourself before your decreasing alertness affects your work. Over the last few years I’ve been using it daily and it feels like it was the last secret missing key for me to unlock my productivity potential.

Review

If you’re feeling that your productivity levels aren’t what they should be or feeling tired and lethargic, take the time to change your sleeping, eating and exercising habits.

I know that it can seem difficult, but anything of value has a difficulty factor attached to it. It’s easy to look for a quick fix to a solution but by actually paying the price of going through and overcoming a difficulty you will be paid back no end.

Afterword

“The associated annual economic costs due to lost productivity for the entire work population at the participating companies were estimated to be $54 million (~$1967/employee). Our findings highlight the potential for the improved detection and treatment of sleep disturbances to significantly improve workplace safety and productivity and reduce the associated economic costs.

Mark R. Rosekind, PhD, Kevin B. Gregory, BS, Melissa M. Mallis, PhD, Summer L. Brandt, MA, Brian Seal, PhD, and Debra Lerner, PhD, The Cost of Poor Sleep: Workplace Productivity Loss and Associated Costs, 2010; p.97

Categories
Alert Energy Exercise Productivity Tension Tiredness

Stretch And Reach For The Stars

Stretch Yourself

And reap the benefits

Have you noticed that when you wake up you stretch and yawn? Studies have found that it is more common to stretch and yawn than it is to yawn and stretch.

No one really knows why this is but many hypotheses relate the phenomena to our bodies trying to prepare themselves for activity and possibly to increase the alertness of our brains.

If there is any truth to the above assumption, would it then be possible to benefit from a good stretch throughout the day to help boost our alertness and productivity?

Stretch And Reach For The Sky
Photo by @johnlmc via Twenty20

Unnoticed Tension

Working towards a big goal, deadline or completing a difficult task can unintentionally increase the tension within our bodies. The difficulty that I have is that I get lost in my work or study and just power through regardless, which in the end leaves me feeling exhausted.

What I didn’t realise is that one of the reasons why I get so tired is due to the build up of tension. Unfortunately it’s very easy to miss, especially if you get tunnel vision and only see the making of your deadline to the exclusion of everything else.

As the tension builds, you can become more tired, which can cause you to snack or drink caffeine in a subconscious attempt to raise your energy levels, but ultimately they both just delay the onset of tiredness at the expense of feeling more drained later, which leads to more snacking (you get the picture).

Increased Tiredness

“The sugar snack condition was associated with significantly higher tension after one hour, and a pattern of initially increased energy and reduced tiredness, followed one hour later by increased tiredness and reduced energy. The results partially support a general conceptual hypothesis that sugar snacking is often motivated by a low-awareness attempt to raise energy. Additionally, the results clarify an apparent conflict between neurochemical research, which indicates that sugar ingestion increases the tendency to sleep, and popular nutrition theory, which indicates that it increases tension.”

Thayer, R. (1987). Energy, Tiredness, and Tension Effects of a Sugar Snack Versus Moderate Exercise. /Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,/ /52(1),/ 119-125.

I knew about the sugar crash thing but didn’t make the link between sugar causing tension which would most likely increase my tiredness and then without thinking make it more likely that I would eat or drink a sugary snack to help fight the tiredness.

It also explains why caffeine drinks and chocolate are so full of sugar. I used to think that sweet foods and drinks increased my energy levels but at the expense of increasing my calorie intake, with the inevitable crash once the initial sugar high wore off.

But just like caffeine, the effects are temporary and actually can help to make you dependent upon them just to make it through the day! Unlike caffeine though, the build up of tension within your body is very subtle and difficult to detect, which it is why it so difficult for us to make the link between sugar, tension and tiredness.

Stretching

“Powerful stretching movements have major, widespread physiological consequences, including increases in the pulse rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to the muscles and other body parts, and increase in the flexibility of the muscles and joints”

Provine, R., Hamernik, H., & Curchack, B. (1987). Yawning: Relation to Sleeping and Stretching in Humans. /Ethology,/ /76(2),/

The authors of Yawning: Relation to Sleeping and Stretching in Humans suggest that stretching usually happens just after waking up to help prepare our bodies for action and to increase our brains alertness. But I’ve found that when I’m working intensely and lose myself, there are points when I naturally yawn and stretch, as if my body is trying to boost my energy levels.

Sometimes I acted on these natural reminders to take a break and go outside for a walk, but if I was especially tired, then that walk would end up at a vending machine looking for something sweet to eat or drink to pick myself up.

The problem for most people in a similar situation is that they don’t realise that their alertness levels are dropping until it’s too late and they find themselves snacking on something sweet and caffeinated. The solution to this is to know when your energy and alertness is decreasing before it gets to the snacking stage. This is where V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alertcan help. Our Apple Watch app monitors your body’s rhythm and notifies you when alertness levels start to decrease.

Once I get a notification, I leave my work in it’s best possible state, have a stretch and go for a walk outside or get a cup of water to drink which helps to raise my alertness levels so that when I get back to work I can continue at a more energised level.

In fact in “Yawning: Relation to Sleeping and Stretching in Humans” the research paper found a surprising benefit to walking instead of consuming a sugary snack.

“The results from the 10-min rapid walk are perhaps the most striking of the whole experiment. This relatively small amount of moderate exercise was associated with significantly increased energy and decreased tension for as long as 2 hours after the activity. The sugar snack, on the other hand, first was associated with tense-energy and then tense-tiredness for a majority of the participants. And although the energy and tiredness effects were weak in this condition, the increased tension effects associated with the sugar snack were unmistakable.”

Provine, R., Hamernik, H., & Curchack, B. (1987). Yawning: Relation to Sleeping and Stretching in Humans. /Ethology,/ /76(2),/

Summary

Stretching and yawning is your body’s natural attempt to raise our energy and alertness. We instinctively know this but over the years have been conditioned to to work against ourselves by using sugar and/or caffeine to give us a quick, immediate boost.

The problem with this approach is that these fixes are short term and have the potential to help us become dependent on them just to make it through the day.

Use your body’s natural indicators and work with your body by going for a walk, stretching and drinking water to help naturally and effectively raise your body’s energy and alertness levels.

Afterword

“Stretching his hand up to reach the stars, too often man forgets the flowers at his feet.”

Jeremy Bentham