I like to think of myself as a pretty rational and empirical thinker. I try to understand points where my thoughts will be influenced by bias and my immediate reactions to situations. At these points, I try (not always successfully) to pause to be more reflective and considerate. I generally believe that striving for rationality and more evidence backed opinions is a good thing, but there is research which suggests that this strategy can lead to overthinking things and might involve parts of the brain which are not well suited for some decisions.
In Deep Work, author Cal Newport writes about Unconscious Thought Theory and research by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis (I have no pronunciation help here). Research from Dijksterhuis shows that our unconscious brains are good at handling situations with complex, ambiguous information and no clear path forward. Newport describes it by writing, “if you need to do a math calculation, only your conscious mind is able to follow the precise arithmetic rules needed for correctness. On the other hand, for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, perhaps even conflicting constraints, your unconscious mind is well suited to tackle the issue.”
The reason Newport brings this into his book Deep Work is because in addition to strict focus work, he also advocates for time away from work. “your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited,” Newport explains, “If you’re careful about your schedule … you should hit your daily deep work capacity during your workday.”
The implication is that we should step away from our work to give our conscious minds a break when we max out on our deep work capacity. Some tasks are not well suited for the hyper-analytic conscious mind, and some of these tasks can be worked through by the unconscious mind at a time when the brain doesn’t have to marshal all resources for deep analytical thinking. By stepping away from work, closing out of our work email, and engaging with other life hobbies and our families, we can allow our unconscious brain to sort through the challenging ambiguities of the problems that had previously stymied our work. Unconscious Thought Theory suggests that our unconscious brain can work on these problems if given space, but continuing to check work emails after hours or logging back in here and there to check on our work prevents the unconscious brain from having the space it needs to do the background sorting that makes it a valuable tool.
In the end, it is turning off our rational brain for a little while, allowing ourselves to engage with something or focus on something that doesn’t require such heightened focus, and knowing when to stop our deep work that helps us perform at our best. The answer is not to continuously chug through all the analytic work we can force onto our brain in a day, but to maximize the time we can spend in deep work, and turn ourselves off when we have hit our cognitive limit.
Yesterday I wrote about naps and some research from Daniel Pink in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Napping has a lot of benefits in terms of mental acuity and health outcomes. Unfortunately, outside of toddlers in the United States, naps have almost completely disappeared.
In my own life, I look almost longingly at nations like Spain, where afternoon siestas are a thing and people get a chance to recharge with a mid-afternoon nap. Generally, I don’t tend to be the most effective or efficient person between about 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. and would likely benefit from a short nap rather than dragging through a bunch of email.
As a perfect napping solution, Pink suggests the nappuccino. In his book he writes, “Down a cup of coffee. Seriously. The most efficient nap is the nappuccino. The caffeine won’t fully engage in your bloodstream for about twenty-five minutes, so drink up right before you lie down. If you’re not a coffee drinker, search online for an alternative drink that provides about two hundred milligrams of caffeine. (if you avoid caffeine, skip this step. also reconsider your life choices.)”
Coffee right before a 20 minute nap is ideal because it takes about the time that you will be napping for the coffee to get to work. You will get the benefit of a short nap to recharge your brain and coming out of the nap you will get the stimulus benefit of the caffeine. Pink presents more research in his book which suggests that we generally have a lag coming out of our naps. We rebound and feel a level of sleep inertia that corresponds with the length of time we slept. At about 20 to 25 minutes, we avoid the sleep inertia, but once we start getting over 30 minutes, the sleep inertia kicks in, and we feel groggy and slow getting up from our nap. 20 minutes plus coffee avoids the sleep inertia and pumps us up with extra caffeine energy.
If you work from home or have a good set-up for a quick office nap, maybe give this strategy a try. If you don’t work from home and don’t have a place to nap in the office, then maybe its time to start lobbying the boss for afternoon siestas for everyone. Maybe one of us should run for president on a 6 hour work-day plus siesta platform.
Quite a while back, I wrote about a study that Richard Wiseman shared in his book 59 Seconds. Our minds are greatly shaped by cues in our environment, even if we are not consciously aware of any cues. In the example that Wiseman shares, people are shown to be more greedy and less friendly when sitting in front of a computer with a dollar sign as the wall paper, and are more likely to be cleaner and more orderly when there is a slight scent of cleaning fluid in the air. Our environment can shape how we think and what we do, to the point where we pick up on seemingly meaningless details around us that we don’t consciously pay attention to.
In the book When Dan Pink shares another example of this. Pink is all for breaks due to their restorative power. They help us by allowing our brains to pause, to focus on something different for a moment, and to get out of any mental ruts into which which we have settled. Even tiny breaks where you close your eyes for a few beats while sitting at your computer can be helpful, but in the words of Pink, “Outside beats inside.”
Pink references academic work showing the benefits of getting outside during the workday for quick breaks, “Nature breaks may replenish us the most. Being close to trees, plants, rivers, and streams is a powerful mental restorative, one whose potency most of us don’t appreciate. For example, people who take short walks outdoors return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk indoors.”
Being around living green life helps get us away from the selfish, unfriendly, competitiveness that our dollar-sign-focused work environments often foster. Walks might seem like they are just an excuse to get away from work for a little bit, but they can actually be a tool to do better work. Nature breaks provide our mind with new cues, possibly reminding us that we live in a vast interconnected world with more important things to consider than just our salary and whether we make more money than Sally. Incorporating more breaks that harness the power of nature to restore ourselves is something we should build into our schedules. Companies and organizations should think about the ways they can create a work space that encourages green breaks, and should consider the parts of town where their offices are located, to try to allow employees to get outside on breaks, and to be able to walk in more nature connected places than just parking lots. Our brains notice more than we sometimes realize, and we can use that reality to make ourselves feel better.