I am currently stupid. 2018 was a long year in which I successfully helmed a number of projects, worked full-time, improved my house and health, and oh yeah, became a writer on Medium. I was busy, busy, busy. My days involved a full 12–14 hours of activity. Despite feeling so great about life, I also felt tired and fatigued a lot.
Now, during the holiday season, I am completely burned out, am forgetting simple words, misplacing things, and sleeping a bunch. I have made myself stupid.
I took the longest vacation I’ve ever taken in my life and besides the requisite holiday gatherings, have done a whole lot of nothing. And it’s been great. My brain and body needed the rest.
That’s because being “ productive” (read: multitasking), working overtime, and not taking time to rest all contribute to a deficit. As a Harvard Medical writer notes, “If sleep were a credit card company, many of us would be in deep trouble.” One oft-cited study at the University of London found that multitasking actually decreased IQ. And working more than 55 hours a week (guilty!) caused participants in the famous Whitehall study to score lower on vocabulary tests and other cognitive assessments.
So, the hardest-working, smartest people are literally making themselves stupider as life goes on. And if you have sleep problems or a demanding work schedule, the problems are compounded.
As highly motivated, overachieving people — especially entrepreneurs—know, being productive is essential to accomplishing one’s goals. It simply isn’t feasible in today’s society to work fewer hours or sleep more, even if our health demands it. But there are things you can do to counteract the negative effects.
- Stimulate your brain without working. Read, listen, and do puzzles. It’s true. Especially if you are a writer, reading is essential to both your professional growth and mental acuity. It recharges you. If reading isn’t an option (e.g. when you are driving your morning commute), try listening to audiobooks or podcasts. And on your lunch break, try doing crosswords or Sudoku. Puzzles activate different parts of your brain and engage both your memory and critical thinking skills in low-stress activity.
- Each day, take at least 10 minutes with no stimulation. Turn off your screens and put down the work. You don’t have to meditate, although it’s recommended. Sometimes, super-low level work such as sweeping the floor might suffice if you can get into a Zen mindset. Empty your mind. I promise, it won’t make you even stupider.
- Avoid the lure of hyper-productivity. In many jobs, you’re expected to be constantly working, in order to maximize the labor efficiency while reducing costs to the employer. Here’s the thing though: you don’t have to multitask. In fact, you’ll feel busier, but get less done if you multitask. As noted above, it’s really bad for you. (And so are pointless meetings, but that’s another topic.) Focus your attention on the task at hand. If you must, set timers to guide your work. Rather than bouncing between drafting a memo, checking email, and brainstorming new marketing ideas for three hours (guilty), dedicate one hour to each task and DO NOTHING ELSE during that hour. (I know, shocking.) You might even want to shut down your email client and mute notifications during this time.
And if you’re lucky enough to have paid time off or vacation at your job, use it. There’s no shame in taking time to yourself. And you don’t have to go on an expensive trip. The word vacation is related to “vacate,” meaning to leave a place or situation one had previously occupied. Nothing more to it!
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