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Caffeine Caffeine Addiction Caffeine Alternative Energy Focus Insomnia Productivity Sleep

How To Out Smart Your Tiredness

Your Apple Watch, V-CAF & You

Stay awake and alert…

I had some urgent work to get done and time was against me. Caught between a rock and a hard place I decided to power on and resorted to coffee to help me beat the tiredness.

This was before my abstinence from caffeine and I’d always used some form of caffeine to get me through the tough times. Unfortunately on this occasion my coffee didn’t seem to help. “No problem, I’ll just drink more”, I thought. But by now more meant having my sixth espresso (with a teaspoon of sugar).

Sure enough it seemed to work for a little while but soon after I felt even more tired, so I decided to stop for the night and continue in the morning. Bad idea! I went to bed and couldn’t get to fall asleep even though I felt exhausted. At first I thought it was due to the work that I still had to finish, but at some point near sunrise I realised that it must of been all the coffee I had!

I knew it was not going to be a pleasant day ahead.

Out Smart Your Tiredness
Photo by @mkolchanov via Twenty20

The Old Path

Getting out of bed and feeling tired, I did what most people do and reached for the coffee to start off the day. And as I’ve said many times before, coffee (or more specifically, caffeine) works, just not the way that most people think.

Caffeine works by interlocking with your adenosine receptors which has the effect of blocking their ability to respond to the adenosine levels in your brain. Your body produces adenosine throughout the day and high levels of adenosine activate your adenosine receptors to indicate to your brain that your tiredness levels are increasing.

Caffeine manipulates your adenosine receptors to make you feel more alert than you actually are, which many people confuse with gaining more energy when in fact they have the same amount of energy and tiredness as they did before consuming caffeine. Caffeine is so good at blocking adenosine that its effects can last up to twelve hours.

Knowing what I know now I feel duped that I thought caffeine would help me get through the day! My plan was to drink a cup of coffee whenever I felt tired so that I could concentrate in short bursts and get things done. It had worked in the past, so I didn’t think that it wouldn’t work now, especially after a night of not being able to sleep well due to the amount of coffee that I’d drunk throughout the last couple of days.

Unfortunately I didn’t count on my caffeine tolerance levels increasing and just when I needed the caffeine fix the most, it didn’t make me feel alert or able to concentrate any better than before!

Dead End

What You Should Know about Caffeine states: “Caffeine does not accumulate in the bloodstream or body and is normally excreted within several hours following consumption.” In fact, only about 1 percent of caffeine is excreted. The remaining 99 percent must be detoxified by the liver, and the removal of the resulting metabolites is a slow and difficult process. In Chapter 3, you will learn that it can take up to twelve hours to detoxify a single cup of coffee. In fact, the matter of accumulation has never been resolved. Evidence suggests that it may take up to seven days to decaffeinate the blood of habitual coffee drinkers. Plus, it can take three weeks or more for the body’s levels of stress hormones to return to normal. If that’s not accumulation, what is?

Cherniske, Stephen Snehan . Caffeine Blues (pp. 20-21). Grand Central Publishing.

To compensate for my apparent lack of alertness I had a few more cups of coffee and a cola. After a short while, although I didn’t feel great and clear headed, I felt better than I had before, but not for long. After about forty minutes I felt tired again and wanted more caffeine.

What I didn’t know then was that my body’s caffeine tolerance had increased significantly so I would need to consume much more caffeine just to get to the point where I felt normal. To make matters worse, when you become dependent on caffeine to keep you awake and functioning, the act of not consuming caffeine for a brief period can induce withdrawal symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of concentration
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea

Although annoying, caffeine withdrawal symptoms for some people can pass quite quickly (a couple of days), but for others it can take weeks.

In my case I started to feel extremely tired and found it difficult to concentrate. I knew that I wouldn’t get any work done so I decided to take the rest of the day off and recover at home. Luckily it was the weekend so I decided to keep away from caffeine, and during the day get outside and go for walks, and get to bed by 10pm during the evenings.

I felt lazy for most of the weekend and decided to do the very minimal that I could around the house and I didn’t go out too much (mostly to the shops to get food and supplies). I dozed off a lot and didn’t eat much, but by Sunday I found that my head felt clearer and I wasn’t feeling so irritable.

I decided that the following week I would keep away from caffeine and get to bed on time. Caffeine did help, but only briefly.

Work Smarter

These days I rarely drink coffee and although I do enjoy a caffeinated cold beverage once in a while, I don’t depend on caffeine to help me to focus or concentrate.

Instead I make it a daily priority to get to bed at roughly the same time every night (including during holidays), getting good quality sleep as well as getting enough sleep, exercising daily and eating more healthy.

Taking these steps alone has helped me more than overcome my caffeine dependance and I believe increased my level of productivity as well. Doing this has also helped me concentrate so that the quality of my work improved too.

In addition I manage my tiredness levels better than I did in the past and as I like gadgets, use my iPhone and Apple Watch to help me. In particular I regularly use our app V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert throughout the day to inform me of when my alertness is dropping so that I can do something to wake myself up.

In other articles I’ve mentioned how I useV-CAF to notify me when it’s time to take a break, and where I can (usually in the afternoon after lunch), I either have a 20 minute nap or go for a walk or stretch and do some light exercises (for example my martial arts forms) to help reengage my mind with my body. I’ve found that after taking a quality relaxing break, when I get back to my desk, things just flow and work gets done quicker.

Review

Since the industrial age caffeine has been the go to drug of choice to help us with our alertness and overcoming tiredness. Although caffeine appears to work, in the long run our minds and bodies pay the price in disrupted sleep, caffeine dependancy and risking intoxication due to harmful chemicals found in coffee.

To date, over 700 volatile substances in coffee have been identified, including more than 200 acids and an incredible array of alcohols, aromatic compounds, carbonyl compounds, esters, hydrocarbons, heterocyclic compounds, and terpenoids. Nonvolatile substances in coffee include caffeine and other purines, glycosides, lipids, melanoidins, caffeic acid, and chlorogenic acid. And that’s just the stuff that’s supposed to be there. Coffee often contains a raft of pesticide residues and other contaminants such as nitrosamines, solvents, and mycotoxins. These carry well-defined health risks, and some are carcinogenic.

Cherniske, Stephen Snehan . Caffeine Blues (p. 16). Grand Central Publishing.

Thankfully there are alternatives that are far less harmful and work with our bodies such as diet, exercise and sleep. There are also smart devices such as the Apple iPhone and Apple Watch that coupled with apps such as “V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert” can be used to help you manage your tiredness levels and get more out of the day.

Afterword

The deception has been well coordinated by an industry whose goal is quite simple: to get as much caffeine into your body as possible. If the caffeine industry can accomplish that, they have you as a customer for life. They know caffeine saps your natural sense of vitality, leaving you dependent on their products to get through the day. They know that you actually crave their products and, more importantly, that you suffer when you don’t consume them. It’s a marketing dream, and it’s legal. No wonder more and more companies are jumping on the caffeine bandwagon, churning out products from specialized coffees and teas to “herbal” caffeinated energy pills, caffeine-laced fruit beverages, “supercharged” soft drinks, caffeinated beer, and even caffeinated bottled water.

Cherniske, Stephen Snehan . Caffeine Blues (p. 4). Grand Central Publishing.

Categories
Anxiety Energy Productivity

Life After Deadlines – Cooling Down

Dying to Make Deadlines

Take some well deserved downtime…

My last three deadlines have been very stressful. After each deadline passed I felt exhausted and didn’t want to do anything work related for at least a month. But alas, as I’m employed by someone else there’s always something more to do; another urgent deadline, another milestone to surpass.

Luckily for me, sometimes the work is really interesting and I get consumed by figuring out how to solve the latest problem, but working like this can make you feel like your the hamster on the wheel, going nowhere fast no matter how much effort and energy you put in to your work or study.

I hoped by speaking with the office Veterans about this someone would have some words of wisdom to help me get through this rut, but unfortunately the best advice was that it will soon pass.

It’s true and it does pass, but at what cost? Am I, like so many others doomed to work in this never-ending deadline loop with no reprieve, or are there better more sane ways of coping with the daily grind?

Reflecting on the Costs
Photo by @raqwell via Twenty20

Creeping Debt

In previous articles I’ve explained about how we can inadvertently overload ourselves with stress without realising what we are doing. Unless we are aware of the potential to over burden ourselves, most people continue working in ways that eventually can lead to stress and illness.

With the case of my past three deadlines in mind I was eager to get on with the work and get things done. The first deadline had a three week completion date and the work that I had to do was planned out well and even gave me wiggle time to get things done.

Over the next three weeks things conspired, as they do, to make sure that I wouldn’t make the deadline without a fight! Creeping and changing requirements, things not working as expected and misunderstandings all took their toll. What this translated to was longer work days, less time to wind down when I got home, and more work to do fixing my mistakes that I made whilst working when fatigued. But good news, we made the deadline!

During the last week of the first deadline I was pulled into a meeting to discuss the second deadline, knowing that the next round of work began on the following Monday. The second deadline was just as well planned out as the first but with less wiggle room and more work. As you can guess the stress was starting to take its toll and the second round of work had even more difficulties than the first round.

By the time the third deadline was about to start I hardly had the mental energy to even think about things. I just hunkered down and did the best that I could given the circumstances. By the end of the last round I felt like I just wanted to curl up and sleep, but knew that there was more work coming.

 

The Breakdown

A similar situation is true for a lot of us whilst studying or working:

  • You start off full of enthusiasm and eagerness to get things done
  • You get things done and you feel that you are making progress
  • As a reward you get more things to do
  • After a few more cycles of getting things done and then getting more work to do you start to feel like it takes more effort to get the same things done
  • Either the quality or quantity of your work starts to slip and others start to notice
  • Things become a chore and you just work to put something in (usually not your best work).

Being unaware that you are under stress, you’re more likely to expose yourself to building up a stress debt that eventually can break you and leave you unable to work.

To complicate matters some of our lifestyle choices (which can be influenced by the amount of stress that we are exposed to) also impact on our health and further compound the stresses that we are already experiencing. For example alcohol abuse, smoking, not getting enough physical activity and being obese are all factors that can negatively contribute to your stress levels.

Stress itself is significant for survival. In small doses, it activates search activity, helps to solve many problems that a person faces that day, contributes to development, helps activate the body’s defences when fighting diseases. However, chronic stress is directly related to the onset and progression of many pathological conditions.

Shelestova, O., and . “COPING STRATEGIES AND MODELS OF OVERCOMING POST-STRESS CONDITIONS.” Herald of Kiev Institute of Business and Technology (2020).

Too much stress can lead to:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Tension
  • Emotional instability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of memory
  • Increased fatigue

Coping Strategies

Being able to identify when you are stressed is important as it allows you to take action to reduce your stress levels. In my case with the three deadlines, I continually ignored the signs that I was getting more stressed than I needed and as a result made it more difficult for me to complete my tasks.

I thought that I had it all under control as I took regular breaks whilst at work (even when working long hours), I still found time to exercise regularly and get in between 7 – 9 hours of sleep daily (although it was probably closer to 6 – 7 hours of sleep, which might not have been of the best quality due to stress).

And although I did meet my deadlines I felt shattered by the end of it! So looking back what could I have done better?

A Problem Aired

It turns out by having a group of people going through similar stresses that are willing to talk about them does help. For a start, the group can validate your feelings and help you not feel so isolated. Sharing your concerns with a councillor, support group or work colleagues can greatly reduce the effects of stress on your health. You also have access to other peoples insights and strategies that you may not of thought about which can be very beneficial. It also helps vent your frustrations, which thereby lessens your stress burden.

Move More

Even though I exercised regularly, I still found that I spent a lot of hours at my desk (because I only took 5 minute breaks by looking around the office or checking my email). As frustration and stress builds throughout the day taking a few minutes away from your desk and getting involved in some sort of physical activity does wonders. In the past I’ve practiced my martial arts forms or gone for a walk which have had the effect of lifting my mood and clearing my head. Do whatever works for you be it running, walking, swimming etc. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something (especially when you feel your stress levels raising).

Chill Out Periods

And finally, take time off before starting your next assignment. One of the things that annoys me the most is being disturbed whilst working on a tight deadline to plan work to come. Why? It doesn’t make work more efficient and actively increases the stress load of those who have to do the work, as it makes it seem that you don’t get a chance to catch your breath. If you are in a position to organise the work, please give everyone at least one working day to recover from the last deadline (weekends and holidays don’t count). Spend a day between tasks to gather your self back together and spend time tying up any loose ends and if you are rested enough, looking through what work is to come (not in detail and not organising things), so that you can gently ease yourself into your next assignment.

Review

Ultimately your health and wellbeing are your responsibility so be nice to yourself and take some timeout to gather your thoughts and recuperate to prepare yourself for your next task.

The mistake I made with the three deadlines was to not take a breather between each assignment which lead to sub par results and frustration and loathing on my part.

Don’t scrimp on your down times, you may pay a bigger price in the long run.

Afterword

Multiply these [stressful] incidents over time and the ingredients for job-related stress overload that contribute to absenteeism, inefficiency, sabotage, and personal breakdowns will be present.

Hartman, .C. (1982). Stress Relief for Transportation Employees. Social Work, 27(5), 449-451.
Categories
Energy Focus Productivity Sleepiness Studying Tiredness

Protecting The Quality of Your Work

Protecting Your Quality of Life

Self first, then others

Working or studying for long hours goes hand in hand with working hard and being productive. I’ve worked at many firms that believe this to be true. If the business owners or senior management spend a lot of time at work the chances are that their employees and subordinates will do the same in order to be seen in a favourable light.

Unfortunately for many firms where this is the case, staff turnover is often high and morale isn’t as good as it could be. Eventually even the quality of work begins to suffer and productivity decreases. In an effort to reverse the trend, managers can demand more from their teams who already feel that they are giving all that they can.

Academics and students don’t do much better. As the pressure to compete with other departments and institutions for research bursaries increases, the need to produce favourable results can lead to people working extremely long days, seven days a week which eventually affects the quality of the research and study in a negative way.

Trying to suggest to such people to spend less time working is often met with derision or dismissed as not being realistic. “If I don’t put the hours in how will the work get done”, is a response I used to give back to anyone that dared mention cutting back on the hours spent at work, whilst having to do more tasks.

But what if our assumptions about putting more time in at work are wrong and may in fact be the reason why we have to put more hours in?

Protect Yourself
Photo by @AZ.BLT via Twenty20

Quantity and Effort

Let me start off by saying that I’m not opposed to working long hours per se, but my past experiences of working long hours and the results I achieved led me down the path of investigating if there was a better way of getting things done apart from spending all my waking hours trying to figure out how to finish my task on time.

In many professions long hours are a cultural norm (take junior doctors for example), and anyone challenging the status quo tend to be seen in an unfavourable manner that often can effect their career prospects. Those that complain can be made to seem weak and not up to the task of getting things done, which is all well and good, but can have a chilling effect on anyone who might have a better solution to just throwing more hours at a problem.

Another motivating tactic that is often used to get people to work longer and so increase productivity is to pay more money or overtime. This seems fair as your time and effort is being compensated for, but what about your health and family time? Again, there’s nothing wrong with working long hours but you have to take into account all aspects of your life (unless you live to work).

And full disclosure here, I regularly work long hours, but have found ways to manage that with my family and personal life. Working long hours from time to time I believe is acceptable, but what I don’t like is that it soon starts to be seen as the norm and exploited as such.

Grinding Ourselves Down

Perhaps a better question may be “What is the cost of working fatigued?” According to a fatigue cost estimator from the National Safety Council and Brigham and Women’s Sleep Matters Initiative, health-related cost of lost productivity is $136 billion a year. Further, a reported 70% of Americans regularly experience insufficient sleep. Sleep loss, especially in the presence of underlying sleep disorders, results in reduced workplace productivity and increased absenteeism, health care expenditures, workplace accidents and injuries, and motor vehicle accidents during commutes.

Alger, S., Brager, A., Capaldi, V., & , (2019). Challenging the stigma of workplace napping. SLEEP, 42(8),

When working long hours becomes the norm, that’s when the negative effects on work start to take hold. Working long hours for short periods of time is okay and is needed from time to time to get things done due to an unforeseen oversight or event.

Prolonged overworking leads to work fatigue and stress which can have negative effects on your health and wellbeing. Work fatigue is negative for both employee and employer or company.

Employees presenting high levels of work fatigue displayed lower job satisfaction, psychological health, physical health, and organisational commitment, coupled with accrued turnover intentions and difficulties to relax after work. Work fatigue is damaging both psychologically and physically, leading to less efficient work recovery, negative work attitudes and health-related difficulties.

Blais, A., Gillet, N., Houle, S., Comeau, C., & Morin, A. (2020). Work Fatigue Profiles: Nature, Implications, and Associations With Psychological Empowerment.Frontiers in Psychology,11,

So how do you know if you are suffering from work fatigue? Here’s a list of signs to lookout for:

  • Constantly yawning
  • Falling asleep when sitting still
  • Feeling tired throughout the day
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Feeling tired when waking up in the morning
  • Unmotivated to go to work and/or finish tasks
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches

Preventative Measures

I mentioned earlier that I also regularly work long hours and have found ways that help me reduce the effects of doing so on my health and personal life.

At first it may seem easier said than done, but by being consistent and working through these steps (and those that you find for yourself, that work for you) you’ll find that you’ll be able to maintain a high level of work whilst at the same time feeling like you have more energy.

Let’s get to it, in no particular order, here are some tips that you may find helpful in reducing the effects of working long hours over a prolonged period of time.

Give Purpose or Meaning to What You Do

  • Where does your current profession fit into the bigger plan for your life? Does it align with your life’s goals?
  • Figure out what are the implications of your current task for you, your team and/or company.
  • Figure out which is more important to you, your life or your work life and reorganise as needed (I’m not suggesting that you walk out of your job because the quality of your life is more important! For example if your home life is more important, then start to organise your work life around your personal life if that is possible. If not, then figure out how to make it so).

Look After Your Health

  • Although your employer (even if you are self employed) may try to make things at work as comfortable as they can for you, don’t neglect your own health.
  • Take regular breaks whilst at work (every 25 – 30 mins) where you get up and walk around.
  • If your job permits, after lunch have a 10 – 20 minute nap to help refocus your mind, relieve any tiredness and give you a quick boost in your energy levels without having to resort to caffeine.
  • Take regular exercise
  • Get outside more (maybe during one of your scheduled breaks throughout the day). Getting daylight to your skin and eyes helps regulate your circadian rhythm which in turn will help improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals and smoking before going to bed.
  • Go to bed at regular times and get between 7 – 10 hours of sleep per night (even on weekends and holidays).

Review

There is constant pressure to perform well at work and whilst studying. Some people assume that spending many hours working or studying is time well spent. Unfortunately due to no fault of their own, they are ignorant to the fact that it doesn’t work.

Schools, workplaces and cultural norms reinforce this misguided path as the logical common sense way to achieve great results. It is further reinforced by the “Captains of Industry” who often are cited as having little time for sleep.

Scientific studies are continually updating their findings regarding work fatigue and it currently seems to be clear that working long hours over a long period of time increases the chances of suffering from work fatigue and stress which can negatively affect health and quality of work.

Afterword

Sleep deprivation, in some populations, is still considered a point of pride and a reflection of toughness. However, this argument is based largely in ignorance and companies are beginning a movement to counteract it. Along with recommendations to sleep 7-9 hours at night, daytime naps are being integrated into workplace culture in the world’s largest grossing tech, consulting, media, and retail companies.

Alger, S., Brager, A., Capaldi, V., & , (2019). Challenging the stigma of workplace napping. SLEEP, 42(8),
Categories
Productivity Side Effects Sleep Sleepiness Staying Awake Study Studying

Can I Still Be Productive On Only 4 Hours of Sleep?

Get The Sleep You Can

Stay Awake, Stay Alert

Michelangelo, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison, Margaret Thatcher and Martha Stewart to name a few, only slept for up to four hours each night. Impressive stuff and it appears to have paid off as we know about their contributions to the advancement of our species.

Edison was particularly critical of sleep and stated publicly that it was a “waste of time”. For better or worse, people have tried to emulate the success of those like Edison and sacrifice their sleep in order to get more done and gain an advantage over the competition.

The need to get ahead can take its toll on individuals and societies which can lead to many unforeseen bad consequences, one of which is being able to clearly think and evaluate situations in a logical manner. Being overworked and stressed seems to be antithetical to being productive and healthy, but there are many examples of people (like those mentioned above), that have overcome these obstacles despite not having the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

Is it that some of us are naturally endowed with the ability to have much less sleep than others without compromising their health, or is it that something else is at work here and that having less than six hours of sleep per night can have serious health implications?

Get Some Sleep
Photo by @darby via Twenty20

Productivity vs Sleep

A small group (1 to 3 percent) of the population are among the “sleepless elite “ who are able to get by happily on just a few hours of sleep.

Whether they’re part of this lucky group or have been driven by the pressures of their jobs, we’ve compiled a list of successful executives, political figures, and entertainers who have shunned the 8 hour mantra and managed to rise to the top.

Carolyn Cutrone and Max Nisen, 19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep, Business Insider, Sep 18, 2012, source: Successful People Who Barely Sleep

There have been many articles and online video blogs that follow the current trends of the rich and successful. In many of the posts the focus has been on either how naturally talented their subjects are, how hard they work or both.

The implication is that as a ‘normal’ person watching these elites from the outside, you don’t want success as much as they do or you don’t have the talent to make it to their lofty heights. Your lack of success is down to you not putting in enough time and effort to develop yourself to their level, besides what are the chances of you being in that top 1 to 3 percent like the elites.

Many workers and students also feel that they have to put in the extra time and effort in order to stand a chance of being able to compete with their peers and the broader population in general. A popular approach to this kind of pressure is to work longer hours and shorten the amount of time spent in leisure activities and turning off after work; a practice that can negatively affect the quality and quantity of sleep.

We should also consider that work pressure doesn’t affect everyone the same. And that work and study pressures can be temporary. Even so, care must be taken as volunteering ourselves for sleep deprivation (even for short periods) can have a negative effect on our general health and wellbeing.

 

Self Sleep Deprived

Our leisure time might also be having an effect on our sleep. Many of us spend a lot of time in front of various devices’ screens, the light from which can effect our bodies’ production of melatonin. Melatonin is our bodies’ natural way of regulating how tired we feel and helps us to prepare to sleep. Melatonin production is affected by our exposure to light and therefore too much light in the evenings (especially before going to bed) interferes with our sleep and reduces the quality of the sleep that we get.

This can lead us to being sleep deprived which most certainly reduces our productive ability. Not getting enough sleep can have the following effects:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Inability to focus
  • Reduced motivation
  • Reduced problem solving ability
  • Confussion
  • Irritability
  • Memory lapses
  • Slower reaction times
  • Reduced ability to process information
  • Increase in a lack of judgement

A lack of sleep can also increase the risk of suffering from heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and depression.

Increased Sleep Increases Productivity

Given what we know about the effects of lack of sleep on our productivity and health, to combat these effects ultimately we have to get more good quality sleep.

However this is more easily said than done. Below are some tips that you can incorporate into your daily routine to help you get enough sleep and spend less time at work/studying by doing more of the things that will help you to perform at your best.

  • Get to bed between 9pm and 10pm as this will help facilitate you getting enough good quality sleep as your body naturally starts to produce melatonin which helps you sleep better.
  • Don’t use any light emitting gadgets just before you go to bed. Give yourself a couple of hours to wind down and allow your body to start producing melatonin.
  • Organise your work so that you do your most difficult work around 10am (if you are a morning person), or 3pm – 6:30pm (if you’re an afternoon person).
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol just before going to bed.
  • Take regular breaks rather than one long big break throughout the day. Dividing your task into 25 minute blocks with a five minute break between each block for the day will help keep you focused and help keep fatigue at bay.
  • Include regular exercise in your daily routine (even a 25 minute walk has been proven to positively affect the quality of peoples sleep later in the evening).
  • If you find yourself struggling to stay awake during the day or suffering from brain fog, take a 10-20 minute nap. Studies have found that napping helps with your alertness and focus immediately after.

Review

So, can we be productive with only four hours of sleep? The answer is it depends. Limiting the amount of times that you sleep for under four hours can be helpful if you have a tough work or study load, but it shouldn’t be the norm.

Yes there are some people that can get by with very little sleep, but keep in mind that they are a small percentage of the population. If you can still produce your best quality work with only a few hours sleep regularly, then don’t mess with what works.

Just be mindful that the less hours you get to sleep, the greater the risk to your health.

Afterword

The conclusion from research into polyphasic sleep and short-sleepers is clear. When it comes to sleep, there are no quick fixes. As a result, it is vital that everyone knows how to get a good night’s rest.

Wiseman, Richard. Night School: Wake up to the power of sleep (p. 96). Pan Macmillan.
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
Fatigue Productivity Sleepiness Tiredness

How to Overcome Daytime Fatigue, A New Twist

V-CAF & Apple Watch

The New Twist on Combating Tiredness…

Working in the tech industry it won’t surprise you to know that I can’t get enough of electronic gadgets. As time has progressed my interest in gadgets has shifted from those that were geared towards fun and games, to those that help me to perform better in some way.

Personally, in recent years nothing has fulfilled the role of being both fun and useful as the Apple Watch. In another article I explained how my children gave me my first Apple Watch and how I became hooked. I found that it expanded what was possible on the iPhone and made it that bit more personal by allowing for technology to become more seamlessly integrated into my everyday tasks.

If I need a timer I just raise my watch and ask for a timer to be set for a specific period. Same with directions, calculations, letting me know if I’m being as active as I said I wanted to be and even reminding me of tasks that I set for myself but hadn’t completed yet. It’s great!

However, there was one area that it didn’t help me directly with and that was to do with how tired I felt at any given moment. Some may say that isn’t such a big deal, but it should be noted that most of us don’t realise when we start to get tired (especially when we are busy), or override the signs that our bodies give us in order to get things done.

But is this really the best way to work, and if not what counter measures can we take to help us overcome tiredness during the day?

Two of My Favourites - The Apple Watch & V-CAF
Photo by @camdutchpro via Twenty20

Lack of Sensitivity

There are some things that when we are repeatedly exposed to them, our tolerance levels increase, so that over time we become less sensitive to them.

A frequent example that I use on this blog is caffeine. The fist few times we consume it, we are very aware of its ability to to make us feel more alert, awake and focused. But when we regularly consume caffeine, it can seem as though we need more of it to get the same sort of results that we once did.

I think the same can be said for tiredness and fatigue, but in reverse. In the past I found myself working very long hours late into the evening, and then starting my day very early. When working in these kind of cycles, it was difficult at first to adjust as I found myself constantly nodding off or feeling really low and tired, but after a while I seemed to find my stride and just work through the tiredness.

Drinking coffee or consuming colas seemed to help, but I found myself craving an ever increasing amount of them just to feel like I could make it through the day. The strange thing was that I didn’t realise how tired I was until I crashed out on the sofa, or in front of the computer (if I was working at home).

Fatigue Effects

“A calm surface – most claim to handle an impossible workload by ’taking one thing at a time’ – hides a rebellious body, sending signals of more or less serious conditions such as heart problems, high blood pressure, migraine and sleeping disturbance. The possibility to work even when ill, either at the workplace or at home, normalises the worn out, tired and sick body, and it makes it ‘healthy (enough)’ and available”.

Widerberg, K. (2006). Embodying Modern Times. /Time & Society,/ /15(1),/ 105-120.

Financial, employment and/or social pressures can cause us to overwork ourselves and blind us to the signs that we need to take a break. In my case I used to say things like “I got caught up in my work and didn’t realise the time” to perhaps justify working longer than I should at great risk to my health.

There was definitely an atmosphere of just muddling through as if throwing more hours and people at the problem would some how magically boost productivity. Nobody wanted to let the team down by complaining about being tired, or stressed or overworked, so it continued.

But the longer we worked, the more problems there were, and hence, the need to work more to fix them. It’s crazy to think that I once worked like that! But unfortunately, the signs of fatigue and stress were there and I ignored them to my detriment.

It’s easier said than done, but look out for the symptoms of fatigue and tiredness. Some of the more common signs are:

  • Sleepiness
  • Reduced energy
  • Difficulty in performing basic tasks
  • Fuzzy thinking
  • Slower than usual reaction times
  • Poor judgement
  • Ineffective memory
  • An increase of errors at work
  • Reduced productivity

Can Wearable Technologies Help?

There is no magic pill to overcoming fatigue whilst working or studying, but there are quite a few things that you can do to help improve and even eliminate the problem. Taken together, they help reduce the risk of you overworking and making yourself feel fatigued and miserable.

If you’re a technology fan like me, many of these tips can actively help you to reduce the risk of fatigue and improve the quality of your life.

  • Get enough good quality sleep
    According to the CDC, adults between the ages of 18-60 years need 7+ hours of sleep per night (CDC – How Much Sleep Do I Need? – Sleep and Sleep Disorders). They also state: “Good sleep quality is also essential. Signs of poor sleep quality include not feeling rested even after getting enough sleep, repeatedly waking up during the night, and experiencing symptoms of sleep disorders (such as snoring or gasping for air). Improving sleep quality may be helped by better sleep habits or being diagnosed and treated for any sleep disorder you may have.”

On the Apple Watch there are native applications such as Sleep, as well as third party apps like Pillow that help track your sleep quantity and quality, with both giving you tips on how to improve your sleep.

  • Eat healthy
    Eat less processed foods and refined sugars and eat more whole foods such as vegetables, whole grains, grass fed cattle, mono and polyunsaturated fats etc. As processed foods contain a lot of sugar, salt and unhealthy fats (trans fats) avoid as much as you can.

The worst type of dietary fat is the kind known as trans fat. It is a byproduct of a process called hydrogenation that is used to turn healthy oils into solids and to prevent them from becoming rancid. Trans fats have no known health benefits and that there is no safe level of consumption. Therefore, they have been officially banned in the United States.

The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between – Harvard Health

Improving your diet will help improve your energy levels and help you feel less sleepy as a result.

  • Exercise more

Exercise is a well-acknowledged intervention for sleep improvement and has been endorsed by the American Sleep Disorders Association. A randomised controlled trial conducted on adults with insomnia confirmed that aerobic exercise improved sleep quality, depressive symptoms, and some domains of Quality of Life.

Chang, S., Shih, K., Chi, C., Chang, C., Hwang, K., & Chen, Y. (2016). Association Between Exercise Participation and Quality of Sleep and Life Among University Students in Taiwan. Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health,28(4), 356-367.

You don’t have to exercise for hours on end to get the benefits of exercise in your sleep. A twenty minute daily walk is all that is needed and the effects are immediate.

There are many gadgets that come with a built in step counter, and the Apple Watch comes with the Activity rings that you can set a target for the amount calories burnt during a day. Once set the watch will remind you to keep moving to achieve your goal and congratulate you once you close your rings.

  • Don’t work more than 40 hours a week
    Working long hours tends to cut into your down time which will ultimately affect the quality and quantity of your sleep. Set yourself a reasonable amount of hours of actual work per day and stick to it. It can be hard at first, especially if you are used to working long hours, but eventually you will be able to fit the work you have to do within the time that you have allotted.
  • Take more breaks
    Another easier said than done tip, but thankfully there are tools like Forest and the Pomodoro Technique that you can use to allocate blocks of time to work on tasks, and once a block is complete, take a break. Or you can just set a timer for 20-25 minute blocks and stop when your alarm goes off. Using apps makes it easy to set up and go, and keep things interesting.

However, the best app that I use to remind me to take a break is V-CAF Stay Awake Stay Alert. It’s our app (so I’m biased), but its a fantastic way to optimise your work day. Just start the app on your Apple Watch, choose how you feel at the moment, and the app will then inform you when your alertness levels are dropping. People use it to let them know when they are sleepy, but I use it to let me know when my concentration levels are dropping so that I can take a break (where I either go for a walk outside, or have a 20 minute nap). Either way when I get back to my desk, I feel refreshed and energised .

Review

It’s easy to overwork and wear yourself down. Over time you may find it difficult to realise that you are doing this to yourself, but where you can, try to incorporate these measures into your daily routine so that you reduce the risk of fatigue and it’s many complications.

  • Get enough good quality sleep
  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise more
  • Don’t work more than 40 hours a week
  • Take more breaks

Afterword

Don’t worry about breaks every 20 minutes ruining your focus on a task. Contrary to what I might have guessed, taking regular breaks from mental tasks actually improves your creativity and productivity. Skipping breaks, on the other hand, leads to stress and fatigue. Tom Rath

Tom Rath, source: https://www.quotemaster.org/qfac951bc57660c6d638629a1f7e5d343
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/