Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, garnered national media attention this year after writing an opinion piece called “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive” for The New York Times.
In it, he argues that though running ourselves ragged is par for the course in our culture, we are actually cheating ourselves of the one resource we can control: Energy.
Though energy, like time, is finite, Schwartz argues that it’s a renewable resource that we can all control—by taking strategic breaks, resisting the urge to be non-stop, and ultimately, optimizing our productivity.
While few would argue against a theory that advocates more sleep, vacation, and “me” time, the challenge is that it’s easier said than done.
But, with some self-awareness, and strategic change in your own ideology—it can be.
Here are some expert tips on how and why relaxing and doing less could be the key to boosting your productivity.
Look calm, instill confidence.
Though more responsibility presumably leads to more stress, a study of stress hormone (cortisol) levels among military leaders and corporate executives published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) confirmed the exact opposite.
Compared to their subordinates, cortisol levels of such high-ranking leaders were nearly 30 percent lower. By the same token, you can help your own stress levels, and your career by taking control of how you react to high-pressure situations.
Body language research by social psychologist Amy Cuddy indicates that maintaining non-verbal postures that communicate relaxation and ease (like feet up on a desk with hands behind your head) can actually boost the perception of confidence others have in you, while at the same time, lowering the cortisol levels in your body.
Clear workspace, clear mind.
Having a cluttered desk doesn’t just make you feel frantic and distracted—it can hinder your career.
In a national study conducted by CareerBuilder, nearly 40% of workers reported having a negative perception of a person with a paper-strewn desk, and nearly 30% of hiring managers surveyed said it would cause a person to be passed over for promotions.
The same goes for having multiple windows open on your computer screen, and keeping your email and instant messaging functioning at all times.
Mary Czerwinski, one of the leading authorities in the field of “interruption science” has researched the impact of multi-tasking at companies like Microsoft. Her studies revealed that workers took 15 minutes on average to return to serious mental tasks after they stopped them to respond to incoming email messages.
Recognize that not all breaks are created equally.
You’ve probably read that getting away from your desk periodically, taking a brisk walk, or hitting the coffee shop can clear the cobwebs and boost your workday productivity, but in the May 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, Portland State University professor Charlotte Fritz shared findings that tell a different tale.
According to her research, only breaks that are in some way related to work actually boost productivity during the workday. The rest, according to Fritz, actually make you less productive because they distract you from the work at hand.
Be strategic the next time you take a workday break: Take your coffee with a side of co-worker and talk about a current project, or participate in a conference call while taking a walk outdoors.
To that end, Fritz also found there is a strategy to maximizing the rejuvenating power of taking vacations: Because a very long break can be counterproductive to stress management when you return to a pile of “to do’s”, you’ll benefit more from three shorter trips away from work each year than one long one.
Redefine what is worth your time.
Because our culture rewards and enables expert multi-taskers, many of us form the belief that doing “nothing” is shameful and lazy.
But, Debra K, a self-described “former chronic workaholic super human overachiever” turned author, and host and executive producer of the PBS documentary The Journey into Wellbeing®, says that all overachievers can be reformed to find more balance—but it starts with redefining what is productive, in regards to emotional payoff.
Instead of trying to tackle a monstrous list of “to do’s” like errands and weekends chores, she recommends identifying what takes the least amount of work, but offers the most reward for your effort.
Put yourself on your to-do list.
Debra K says one her “aha moments” in managing overachieving tendencies was scrutinizing her to do list—and noticing that while it was full of tasks and energy spent on building “others” business, success, happiness and well being, there was no place reserved on it for her own well-being.
She says, “It was almost shocking to realize I had put myself at the bottom of my own priority list, but a big step in reducing my chaotic overworking was to move myself to the top of it.”
Because making her own mental and physical wellness a priority stemmed from a place of self-care versus selfishness, she was able to feel “okay” about setting personal boundaries, and taking time to rejuvenate.
Debra K also suggests literally setting a timer on your phone or computer a few times a day to remind yourself to power down, and simply, relax.
Stephanie Taylor Christensen is a former financial services marketer based in Columbus, OH. The founder of Wellness On Less, she also writes on small business, consumer interest, wellness, career and personal finance topics.