Resting into Productivity

© Olly / Dollar Photo Club

We all like to learn and be good at what we do. Right?

But, have you ever found yourself trying to be productive by making the most of idle moments? Answering emails at waiting rooms, listening to audiobooks while driving or reading books cover to cover to learn new things?

Are you convinced that to be more productive you have to work more hours by killing your not working moments?

I did. And it was a huge mistake.

This article explains how resting, sleeping and meditation helps us be more productive and fight procrastination.

Learning and creative thinking continues while we are resting.

The brain has two ways of working: focused and diffuse mode.

We are all familiar with the focused mode. This is our brain’s state when we are answering a test, watching a documentary or the first minutes of a meeting (let’s face it, we all start to drift away on meetings). In this mode our brain is fixated upon a given idea or concept. The focus point may change, but it’s only one at a given time. Logic processes and deduction dominates our thought process, generating new ideas from previous ones.

The diffuse mode is less known but not less important. This our brain’s state when we are resting, more relaxed and not thinking on a particular thing. In this mode our thoughts wander from one idea or concept to the next, not necessarily related, and never fixating on a given one. Logic processes and deduction are not the ones generating new thoughts, thoughts which may be not related at all.

Because the diffuse mode doesn’t fixate on a particular idea, it can wander to the different corners of your brain. This allows our brain to think outside the box and approach problems in a different way. It also allows our brain to see concepts we are trying to learn from a different point of view, and see analogies between learnt ideas.

I like to think that the focused mode is like a sharp photo while the diffuse mode is like a blurred photo.

© Malyshchyts Viktar / Dollar Photo Club

On sharp photos we can focus on particular things, going from one to another without mixing them. Like each of the different fruits. We can even count the fruits.

On blurred photos we can’t focus on a particular thing since they start to mix. Boundaries are not that clear. But we start to see other relationships, such as colors, new shapes and the fact that it looks like a rainbow.

Now you recognize the diffuse mode, right? We’ve all been there at some point. You were there the last time you went from one idea to the solution and thought yeah, that’s the way to do it.

Resting and not focusing on a given thing allows us to make use of the diffuse mode.

So, if you want to be more productive, don’t forget to rest every once in a while to be able to tackle new problems. Try to forget about the problem and go for a quick walk.

By the way, at least in my experience, watching TV is not resting. Watching TV has a particular way of forcing you to be a little focused and it, somehow, avoids you to take advantage of the diffuse mode.

Sleep is an important part of our learning and creativity process.

I’m sure that in the past you’ve sacrificed a couple of hours of sleep in favor of work, just to realize that part of that work wasn’t useful.

I know I have.

Moreover, I have also been stuck with some problem, went to sleep and woke up with new approach or even solution.

This is because sleeping is very important for the learning and creativity process. Throughout the day you are continuously learning new things. This new things are stored as neuronal paths. While you sleep, your brain cleans up the information stored on the previous day by strengthening practiced neuronal paths and weakening unused neuronal paths.

A strong neuronal path is easier to recall and it can also be used to create new information. It can be transferred as a new thought by making analogies, new relationships can be made between paths, etc.

After sleeping you consolidate ideas and concepts, and allows them to be used in creative thinking.

But, that’s not all. The diffuse mode is the predominant mode the brain is while we sleep.

That’s why after thinking hard on a problem before going to sleep, we might wake up the next day surprised with a solution.

So, if you want to be more productive, don’t sacrifice sleep over work! A tired brain produces low quality work. Sleep consolidates the new things we learn and increases our creativity.

Meditation helps us leave the focused mode.

What if you are feeling stuck on a problem? What if you went to bed but can’t stop thinking on a problem? What if you know that resting and the diffuse mode can help you but are having a hard time leaving the focused mode?

This is where meditation helps. The core of meditation is not to force your mind to be in blank, which would be the focused mode, but to pay attention to wandering thoughts and letting them go, which is the diffuse mode.

With a deliberate and periodic practice of meditation, you can strengthen the neuronal paths of meditation. With a strong neuronal path, you will be able to recall the process each time a little bit easier. This is very helpful when you are feeling stuck in focused mode since meditation can help you leave it.

So, if you want to be productive, practice meditation on a daily basis to be able to recall it each time with less effort.

Resting helps us fight procrastination.

Many things can cause us to procrastinate. Personally, fear is the main cause of my procrastination. Fear of exhausting an opportunity, fear of not being able to solve a problem, fear of losing time to a solution that might not work, etc.

The pomodoro technique can easily solve procrastination because of boring tasks. But I’ve found that when the cause of procrastination is fear, I just spend those 25 minutes feeling anxious or frustrated and not knowing clearly what to do.

Procrastination caused by fear is a little bit harder to overcome. I figured out that it’s harder because my brain was in focused mode fixating on the fear itself. Resting and going into diffuse mode helps!

Just meditate a couple of minutes to allow your brain to go into diffuse mode. (Remember that I told you that meditation is a useful tool?) If meditation is not working, you can go for a walk or maybe try to trick your brain into sleeping.

There’s a technique to make your brain go into a state similar to sleep but avoiding you to fall asleep and forgetting whatever you might have figured out in the process. Sit on a comfortable chair with your arm hanging down the side and holding your keys. Then, relax and try not to fixate on a given idea. If you fall asleep, your keys will fall and you’ll wake up. As long as you are drifting into sleep, your mind will wander between thoughts increasing your problem solving skills.

I’ve found that letting my brain go into diffuse mode helps making some fears disappear as new solutions and ways to approach the problem appears.

Do you remember that TV wasn’t resting? Well, social networks, reading news, answering emails isn’t resting either. Don’t lie to yourself. Fight procrastination with proper resting and going into diffuse mode.

So, if you want to be productive, don’t you ever forget to genuinely rest! Don’t think that idle moments are a waste of time. Don’t sacrifice sleep. And never stop strengthening your meditation neuronal paths.

This article was written as an assignment for the Learning How to Learn course. All of the principles and theories are cited from the course.