No one can seem to agree whether Americans are more or less productive than they used to be, but one fact is definitely true: Everyone is trying to squeeze more stuff into the allotted hours of the day. Whether you’ve got a creative business on the side, you’re your own boss, or your regular job is just extremely demanding, odds are, you’re working a lot more than 40 hours per week.
If you want to get the most done during those hours, though, working straight through might not be your best option.
Brain fatigue is a real thing, and too much constant work and stress can create the exact opposite of the desired effect. Rather than being more productive, long hours and nonstop hammering at something can actually make you less creative and able to come up with solutions.
So, as counterintuitive as it may feel, if you want to be more productive, you might actually want to pump the breaks and engage in some behavior that seems lazy, but is cognitively and physically exactly what you need to push on through to your next big idea or task.
Napping: You’ve often joked about taking a nap under your desk, but have you ever actually done it? Neuroscientists have found that literally sleeping on an idea can help you retain it or even elaborate on it, and can also trigger right-brain activity. And even if you don’t achieve full REM sleep (i.e., you just doze for 20 minutes in your car at lunch hour), that time where your mind wanders freely might be enough to help trigger the kind of subconscious thought that make it easier to come up with creative solutions to problems.
Doodling: If having a pen in your hand makes your boss think you’re not paying attention in meetings or on phone calls, email her the studies which show that doodling improves cognitive ability by helping sync the mind and body, and by giving the brain something different to think about than just the same idea over and over.
Daydreaming: Letting the mind wander while doing mindless tasks seems to free up alternative methods of thought, which gives the brain an opportunity to draw new connections. Brain idling is widely accepted to be a great way to hit the reset button, so when you feel like you’re starting to drag at work, give yourself permission to follow the direction of your own subconscious.
Surfing the internet: Why yes, all that time you spend “cyberloafing” (an actual word!) on Facebook might actually help you get more work done. How? Because a.) the time you spent being inefficient makes you work hard to be efficient when you are working, and b.) it removes some of the mystery and distraction about why you might be missing. Taking a quick five minute break to catch up on Twitter or browse Tumblr for just a moment makes you less curious about what’s happening there, which can be actively distracting.
Texting: Sending texts to a friend during the work day may seem like the world’s worst career move, but linguists actually think we should be doing it, at least sometimes. Quick exchanges which require both manual work (i.e., swiping around a digital keypad) and cognitive function (carrying on a conversation) can give your brain a break, while also igniting a similar response as doodling. And if your friend is texting you a story? All the better. Just be sure you keep it short, and don’t be checking your phone all day.
Taking breaks: Seriously, take breaks. This cannot be emphasized enough. Speaking to the New York Times, John P. Trougakos, an assistant management professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, explained that employes need to detach sometimes, and that “it’s shortsighted not to take this time, or for managers to discourage employees from taking it.” Don’t stop in the middle of a particularly productive period, though; instead, wait until you’ve hit a lull in your work, or until you feel like you really just can’t think any more. Then, get up, walk around, or just go sit somewhere else and think of nothing for a while.