In our first post on sustainability and productivity, I outlined three principles for a sustainable and productive life and introduced how they can apply to each of three key areas of your life. In this post, we’ll explore some actionable ways that you can implement these principles in the areas of sleep, rest, and work.
Before we get started, let’s review the three principles for living a sustainable and productive life. You can check out the full post for a more in depth refresher if you need one).
- Principle 1: Our resources are finite
- Principle 2: Sustainability maximizes the potential of our resources
- Principle 3: To be most sustainably productive, we need to bias our resources toward what matters most
Let’s see how these principles can be applied to three important areas in your life.
We begin with sleep for two reasons. First, it is often the most neglected of the three domains; second, it’s arguably the most important in producing reliable and meaningful results. So, to be more productive, start with your sleep and work backwards. In other words, first figure out how much sleep you need each night, then schedule in the rest of your waking hours, making sure to bias your time and resources toward what matters most to you.
A lack of sleep has been shown to contribute to a host of issues, including: short and long term memory loss and malformation; increased impulsivity; an inability to maintain sustained attention; increased conflict due to persistent pessimism and irritability, and increased likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome, the cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart diseases, stroke and diabetes. For these issues and many more, sleep appears to be the only solution.
To maintain good sleep hygiene, consider the following suggestions:
- Identify a good cooldown routine and stick to it. If it works for toddlers, it can work for adults! One trick may be setting a sleep alarm for yourself every night. We all know about alarms to help you wake up—perhaps just as important is a reminder to start to wind-down for the evening, to ensure you get the sleep you need.
- Insomnia, or the inability to sleep, can also be caused by worry or stress. Often, lying quietly at the end of the day can bring to mind unaccomplished tasks your active waking mind didn’t have a chance to focus on. One strategy is to keep a pad by your nightstand to jot all of these things down. Writing down a to do later list, with a plan to accomplish the tasks, allows your mind to release the stress of worry.
- Finally, by maintaining a sustainable schedule, you can ensure that you protect what Dr. Matthew Walker calls a good sleep opportunity window. By not overscheduling yourself and through some thoughtful planning, you can preserve time for the activity that many consider the most important for finding research breakthroughs: sleep.
The scientific definition of rest is the absence of work, also known as "leisure." However, it is important to distinguish between the simple lack of work and the presence of good rest. Good rest is any non-work activity that returns more energy than it requires, and that helps you to work more effectively. This can include exercise or sport, volunteering your time, socializing with friends, consuming media (books, television, films), participating in religious practices, or simply being still. Research by Ap Dijksterhuis, a Dutch psychologist indicates that “breaks in our attention give our unconscious mind time to grapple with a problem, bringing to bear information and cognitive processes unavailable to conscious deliberation.” Thus, to really make the most out of intellectual work, we need to rest.
Consider the following suggestions when evaluating the quality of your rest activities:
- First, be prepared to release activities that drain you more than refresh you. Lots of people enjoy a good Netflix or video game binge session. If you think back to the last time you over-indulged, did you feel better or worse afterward? More or less energized? Sustainable productivity means biasing your time and resources toward rest activities that fulfill and energize you. This may mean cutting back on things that you enjoy, but do not nourish your physical, mental, or spiritual health.
- To evaluate this, consider taking a data-informed approach. Test your rest activities, measure them, and examine them. Keep a list of the things you do in a week and track how they make you feel. Honestly evaluate which activities refresh and which activities drain you. By taking your rest as seriously as you do your work, you will position yourself for sustainable success.
The final domain of life we’ll cover today is work. There are many ways to think about work, but I want you consider two things: process and deep work.
The first idea is that work is a process. It’s as important to optimize how you work as it is to focus on the results of work. If you can find a sustainably productive pace of work, the results will work themselves out. So, it’s often more helpful to focus on the process rather than on the results. Plus, an unhealthy obsession with results can add stress to your work and lead to performance anxiety. Work sustainable and consistently and let go of the outcome. Put another way, you can be goal-oriented but process-focused.
Deep work is any work requiring your full, undivided attention. Most experts believe that you cannot sustainably work more than three or four hours per day at your highest level of concentration—what the author and professor Cal Newport considers deep work. This might be writing, planning, or strategizing. It is possible to push yourself beyond this limit occasionally—say, in pulling an all-nighter to finish a paper—but the goal is to find the number of deep work hours that you can sustain indefinitely, with no ill-effects.
Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you maximize the benefits of Deep Work:
- Use your deep work time to accomplish one significant thing per day and you’ll make great strides toward your goals, no matter what they are.
- Keeping in mind that you only have at most four hours a day, can help you to minimize busyness to focus on productive work.
- Only count deep work. The boxer Muhammed Ali was once asked how many sit-ups he could do. He answered, “I don’t count my sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting because they’re the only ones that count.” In the same way, you should only count your deep work, as it is the work that will help you achieve your goals.
A few final thoughts. As you seek a path of sustainable productivity, remember to be patient with yourself. It will take time to adjust to the new process, to saying no more than you say yes. So, be patient, but determined. Second, embrace the domino effect. Researchers have discovered that changing one behavior can activate a chain reaction to shift related behaviors as well. So, focusing on deep work can lead to saying “no” to less impactful work, which can lead to higher levels of productivity and work satisfaction. Finally, consider the personal motto of world-renowned German industrial designer Dieter Rams: “less, but better.” This can be transformational as we seek to create space in our lives and time to pursue the things that are most important to us.
You can view the video version of this blog post here.
Daniel Wong is the Director of Mentoring and Bridge Programs in the Graduate College Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.