Stress, Rest & Productivity

rest

By Jai Thade, Head of Content

 

Think of an imaginary line. On the one extreme of this line, picture a time when you were in your most stressed state. Being in deep sleep (i.e. the polar opposite of that) can be situated on the other extreme of this imaginary line.

Where we’d like to be in our working hours is somewhere between these two extremes, in a state of optimal focus – calm, but alert. It’s important to recognise, however, that our ability to remain optimally focused is powered by whether we are spending an adequate amount of time in the states between this mid-point and the extreme of deep sleep.

If we don’t do this, we will drift further and further into chronic states of stress, and there is ample evidence that indicates how if we are not able to disconnect from stress and rest, the health impacts can be extremely negative.

While it’s clear that rest is important, we need to also remember that rest comes in different “flavours”, and each “flavour” can serve different purposes. We’re going to examine some of these forms of rest, as well as briefly look at some protocols to better leverage these.

 

  • Sleep

Sleep can be looked at as having two phases – slow-wave sleep & REM sleep.

The former appears to be crucial for aspects like physical healing and growth, motor learning, as well as being able to learn detailed information about specific events. The latter, among other things, seems to act like a self-induced psychotherapy of sorts (Walker & van der Helm, 2009) – allowing us to emotionally process events & experiences. Adequate amounts of it makes us less emotionally reactive to distressing events.

You shuttle back and forth between these two throughout the night. There’s more of one kind earlier in the night, and more of the other later in the night. Our key takeaway from this: a full night’s sleep is important, and an interruption to this can have a host of negative impacts.

To fall asleep more easily and get more quality sleep, try creating a night-time routine you follow each night, do some things to wind down before you go to bed (e.g. stretches, a hot bath, or some chamomile tea), make sure you only use your bedroom for sleep and nothing else, make sure your room is adequately dark & cool, be vary of light exposure (especially blue light exposure) later in the day, etc.

It is also important to be consistent with your sleeping habits (i.e. sleeping and waking up at roughly the same time every day). When we are consistent, our brain will know exactly when we need to be alert and when we can drift off to sleep and communicate this to the rest of the body. Inconsistency leads to things like daytime sleepiness, and night-time restlessness.

Lastly, it seems to be the case that when you sleep is just as important as how many hours you sleep. Different research shows how getting sleep in the earlier parts of the night (approximately between 8:00 pm –4:00 am) might be crucial for many aspects of our health. (Bedrosian & Nelson, 2017; Heid, 2017; D’Addario, 2019)

 

  • Naps

Here’s the part of the article that you want to share with your manager and/or HR team! Some research seems to indicate that naps might assist in task performance (for example, “The Efficacy of Naps as a Fatigue Countermeasure: A Meta-Analytic Integration” – Driskell & Mullen, 2005). This is not just the case for mental tasks, but also physical tasks (“Nap Opportunity During the Daytime Affects Performance and Perceived Exertion in 5-m Shuttle Run Test” – Boukhris et al, 2019).

As Daniel Pink articulated in his book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” (2018), it is widely observed in social science research that most people tend to have a dip in their mental abilities, mood and decision-making skills in the afternoon, around 7–8 hours after they wake up (which usually falls between 2-4 pm for most people). Afternoon naps might be a good antidote to this natural dip.

But make sure your nap is not too long; between 10 to 30 minutes is optimal; as you may fall into a deeper state of sleep and then wake up disoriented rather than rested.

 

  • Relaxation Techniques

An alternative to naps is any practice that helps induce a deep sense of relaxation. This includes certain forms of meditation, certain breathing-based approaches, guided imagery, certain techniques to induce muscular relaxation, as well as self-hypnosis.

It is worth spending some time experimenting with each of these to find an approach that works best for you, and that you can engage in for at least a few minutes every day.

If you haven’t experimented with such approaches before, our recommendation would be to begin with breath-work, as it is the most accessible. People often talk about taking deep breaths and big breaths to calm down, and while that is important, the 3 areas with the highest ROI when it comes to creating a sense of calm is for your breathing to:

  • Have a consistent rhythm
  • Be smooth
  • Breathe through your nose and not your mouth

 

  • Regular Breaks

 

Our ability to think & work is rooted in biological processes. A lot of our biological processes operate in cycles. The most evident of these is the 24-hour sleep/wake cycle. However, not all cycles operate on such long schedules. For instance, our ability to concentrate and focus naturally operates in approximately 90-minute cycles (also called “ultradian cycles”).

Over the course of a day, every human being will naturally have alternating periods of higher energy, concentration and focus (usually around 90 minutes), followed by lulls (usually around 20 minutes). The fact that you have these natural lulls does not mean there is something wrong with you – in fact, it is a part of healthy functioning.

If we do not take a natural break during these lulls (breaks where we can go for a walk, or listen to some relaxing music, or grab a snack or do anything else that helps us wind down), we might actually impair our ability to focus and perform as well during the next 90-minute cycle. Eventually, we’ll see our focus and mental acuity decrease more sharply throughout the day than it otherwise would have.

Thus, taking short breaks every 90 minutes or so is important. Popular approaches like the Pomodoro technique can be modified to leverage this principle.

 

  • Embrace states of inactivity & reverie

Many of us may have experienced the strange phenomenon of a sudden creative insight in the shower, or on a walk, or while doing some household chores. Often the insight has nothing to do with the activity we’re engaged in. Why does this happen?

The one thing common about these tasks is that we are so accustomed to them that we can pretty much do them automatically. In terms of mental engagement, we’re fairly inactive when doing these tasks.

To the ambitious & hyper=productive, doing nothing might sound like a waste of time, however seemingly inactive states of mind can actually serve as an incubation period for insights, and bursts of creativity. By doing nothing, we allow unconscious thought processes to generate ideas and solutions. Sometimes these unconscious processes can be more effective than what we can achieve consciously (“Doing Nothing and Nothing to Do: The Hidden Value of Empty Time and Boredom” – Kets de Vries, 2014).

 

  • Social Rest

For some of us, a large volume of social interactions can be exhausting. After more than a year of lockdowns, however, more people are reporting feeling a sense of social fatigue after social interactions, including people who would describe themselves as otherwise being quite social (for example, “Covid lockdown easing: Why am I exhausted after socialising?” – BBC, 2021).

In the excitement of being able to socialise again, we should not forget the importance of evaluating the kind of interactions we’re having. How authentic can we be in those conversations? How supportive are the people with whom we are interacting? Are we engaging with people who energise us, or with those who drain us?

Moreover, it is also important to be mindful of the phenomenon of “compassion fatigue”. When it comes to empathising with others, doing this very frequently without a recharge will cause our ability to empathise to deplete over time.

To prevent this, look for ways to take breaks. We already know that people need periodic relief from technical and analytical work and rote jobs like data entry. The same is true of empathy. Take time to focus on your interests and things that make you feel happier and more refreshed.

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In conclusion, there may be various reasons we do not feel adequately rested. From inadequate or poor-quality sleep to chronic distractions, to the kinds of foods & beverages we consume. If we don’t take adequate steps to counteract their effects, we may be impairing our ability to perform in both the short-term & long-term

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Here’s your next read: an article on how organisations can help employees develop resilience.

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