Several years ago, Mary Jordan posted an essay, Be Still, and Be a Better Leader,1 on the Linkage Leadership Blog and it caught my attention. At that time, she was a Principle Consultant and Co-Leader of the Linkage Change and Transition Leadership Practice.
We have all heard this admonition to “be still” at various times in our lives. Usually, at least for me, I heard those words when my mother or father or grandparents thought I was squirming too much in my chair at dinner or running around too much, knocking into adults, or playing too rambunctiously with other kids. It was a physical thing. In her essay Jordan takes the phrase to another level – let our brains have quiet time and space to create.
And, this is very, very hard. Our society is always on, obsessed with all manner of activity. We take the badge of “being busy” as something to be proud of. After all, if we are not doing something that looks and feels like work, we’re not being productive. When, for example, was the last time you read or did something just for the fun of it?
Research2 at the University of Virginia and at Harvard has found that most subjects in a research study would rather be doing just about anything, even something that hurts themselves, rather than doing nothing, or simply sitting alone with their thoughts, thinking, pondering, daydreaming. (The research protocol had them sit alone for periods of six to 15 minutes. The study’s participants were drawn from a broad selection of backgrounds and ranged in age from 18 to 77.)
Jordan notes that David Rock, in his book Your Brain at Work, “describes what happens to our brains when they get over stimulated due to non-stop activity. That non-stop activity reduces the resources available to our prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain) for functions such as memorizing, processing and decision making. The other problem with an over stimulated brain is we have a greater tendency to respond negatively to situations. We say and do things we later regret.”
Tony Schwartz, in a 2013 opinion piece in the New York Times,3 points out that “not getting enough sleep, or not having ‘do nothing’ time, was the highest predictor of on-the-job-burnout.” He goes on to point out that it is unfortunate that most, dare I say all, of us see downtime as time wasted. More than 30% of employees eat lunch at their desks and 50% assume that they will work during part of their vacations. (Be honest now, do you fit in one or both of these categories?*) While rewards often accrue for such behavior, it doesn’t mean that that these employees are the most productive.
In the 1950s researchers William Dement, Eugene Aserinksy, and Nathaniel Kleitman4 discovered that we sleep in cycles about 90 minutes long, moving from light to deep sleep, cycle after cycle. (This is known as the Basic-Rest Activity Cycle or BRAC.) Kleitman later discovered that this cycle is also present when we are awake, moving us from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our brain tells us to take a break then and we, too often override that signal and charge ahead, having programmed ourselves via our calendar to do that.
Schwartz suggests that we organize our day to take advantage of this cycle working in 90-minute blocks with short breaks in between. He has three such blocks in his day and has demonstrated that he is far more productive than before. His company, The Energy Project, fully embodies these findings in the way people work and is a laboratory for the renewal principles it teaches. The company’s core idea is that the energy employees bring to their jobs is far more important in terms of the value of their work than is the number of hours they work. They believe that by skillfully managing energy it is possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably.
Tim Kreider, the author of We Learn Nothing, a collection of essays and cartoons, put it this way in a 2012 Opinion Column in the New York Times, The “Busy” Trap:5 “Idleness is not a vacation, an indulgence or a vice. It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body and deprived of it, we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically necessary to getting any work done.”
So, I urge you to begin the practice of being still to give your brain some down time. As you plan each day in the week, work to divide your morning and your afternoon each into two major “chunks,” maybe devoting one or two to multiple shorter meetings (there’s no law that say all meetings must begin or end on the hour or half hour) and use the others to work on your projects. Make sure there is a good-sized break in between the chunks and take a real non-working lunch. In previous Tuesday Readings, I’ve suggested that you might take the break to get a cup of coffee or tea and talk to those you meet in the break room, or to get outside and for a short walk. If you do, I think that you’ll see an overall increase in your energy, more and better results, and no overall loss in productivity. Let me know how it works out.
Make it a great week for yourself and those who work with you. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
* I confess. I was eating lunch when I wrote this. It is extremely hard to break these habits.
- Marty Jordan, Be still and be a better leader, Linkage Leadership Insights Blog.
- NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News Sports and Weather, UVA Study: People Would Rather Shock Themselves than Sit & Think.
- Tony Schwartz, Relax! You’ll Be More Productive, The New York Times, Sunday Review, February 9, 2013.
- Chip Brown, A Stubborn Scientist Who Unraveled A Mystery of the Night, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2003.
- Tim Kreider, The ‘Busy’ Trap, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, June 30,
An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading on March 31, 2015.