"Werk werk werk...," we might have taken Rihanna’s song a little too seriously.
Most of us wake up in the morning, and immediately check the office WhatsApp groups. Before we’ve even washed our faces, we check our work email. Did something happen when we were asleep? If something did, we steel ourselves to make up for lost time. In the taxi, bus or metro to office, we’re busy with texts and phone calls. We get into the work mode before the day has even begun.
As most workplaces and offices reward employees for going the extra several miles, most of us think being overworked is a sure win. It bolsters our own self-importance, and we feel guilty if we find ourselves relaxing a little too much. Podcasts and YouTube videos are mostly about people who sleep late and woke up early to achieve their dreams. It sounds inspiring. If they can do it, why can’t you, we tell ourselves.
The truth is, being busy isn’t a fad that needs to be followed. We’re just being harsh on ourselves - our mental and physical health. We reach a stage of burnout, where we are just fatigued and permanently stressed out. It doesn’t have to be that way. Flip the switch, take those well-deserved breaks. You are far more productive, when relaxed and in a happier state of mind.
Here’s how you can optimise your brain to its best potential.
Healthy sleeping patterns
Put that phone on silent, for starters.
When you sleep, your brain processes issues from the day and makes room for new information to be absorbed. This requires seven to nine hours a night and works best when you give yourself time to settle before going to sleep, explains 41-year-old Kristen Coakley, a wellness expert and management consultant. Citing benefits of reducing screen-time before you sleep, says the Canadian expat, “This helps, because blue light can disrupt our natural circadian rhythms and make it difficult to switch off at night.” You need to be well-rested and refreshed for the day’s challenges. If you’re exhausted and under-slept, your productivity takes a hit.
It might sound basic, but your brain needs it.
When you sleep, your brain processes issues from the day and makes room for new information to be absorbed. This requires seven to nine hours a night and works best when you give yourself time to settle before going to sleep.
“When you don’t drink enough water during the day, your brain synapses lose a bit of plasticity. These are the signals that speak to each other within your nervous system. So, literally your brain loses its ability to process information and think clearly,” explains Coakley.
Start your week by prioritising
Before your week begins, dedicate around an hour to identify your priorities. This applies to both your workspace as well as your household. Assess your priorities wisely; not everything is important, warns Coakley.
Keep your goals realistic. "When setting goals, consider your available time and energy, as well as the level of effort required for each task," says Jean Shahdadpuri, a behavioural health specialist based in Dubai.
‘No such thing as multi-tasking’
Multi-tasking gets a lot of hype, but truth to be told, it takes quite a toll on your brain.
Sneha John, a child psychologist at Medcare, Jumeirah, refutes the idea of multi-tasking altogether. “Focus on that one task and just follow through with that, rather than overloading your brain. Let your brain have that space. To be very honest, there is no such thing as multi-tasking. As in, we can divide our attention between many tasks, but our brain is wired to focus on one thing at time.” she says.
When setting goals, consider your available time and energy, as well as the level of effort required for each task,
In fact, a person might not be able to finish their tasks, as they move on to something else and are not able to give it their all.
Shahdadpuri complements this point and says that it is far more advisable to focus on one task. “If you try to spread your focus over several tasks, you will get a diluted outcome, in all probability. Work towards keeping a clear, uncluttered head, which will ensure structured thought processes,” she says. You can even start by just clearing your desk and keeping it clear, and pristine, notes Shahdadpuri.
She emphasises the importance of an organized mindset as that cements productivity.
Focus on that one task and just follow through with that, rather than overloading your brain. Let your brain have that space,
Schedule in time blocks
After you have set your goals, you need to schedule time for each task.
Using time blocks is instructive as it helps to keep you focused on priority and ensure you allocate enough time to complete them, explains Coakley. You need to identify your highest-productivity task each day and observe how you work best. You might be more productive in shorter blocks of time. On the other hand, you could have clearer focus in 90-minute periods. Do you have more focus in the mornings, or do you slowly ease into the day? Discover your own productivity rhythm. This will help you create a schedule that works best for you.
Moreover, when you finish your time block, take a break of around 15 to 20 minutes. Give yourself time to breathe, stretch and interact with other people. These mini-breaks promote cognitive agility, says Shahdadpuri. She also suggests practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation, taking walks, during these intervals, which can help in centering yourself. Thirty-four year old Yasir Khan, a UAE-based fitness trainer calls these time blocks 'micro-scheduling'. "I effectively plan two or three short breaks throughout the day. I use that time for deep breathing, praying, or grabbing a cup of coffee. My days don't feel so long as I always have a micro-break to look forward to," he says.
Breaking down your to-do list into smaller, manageable tasks
Thirty-four year old Ghyna Kurdy, a full-time working mother and media consultant based in Dubai, prefers to celebrate the small wins. “I often find myself setting lofty to-do lists that can quickly become overwhelming. However, I've learned to break down these lists into smaller, more manageable tasks,”explains the Lebanese national. This helps her to realise that she isn’t falling short. “It helps me build a sense of accomplishment that motivates me to keep going.” You could always follow the one-minute rule.
Write it down
Paper is more patient than man, as the famous saying goes.
We have several goals and ideas that keep flowing through our minds every day. It can get overwhelming. “That's why I've found it helpful to develop the habit of writing down all my thoughts and ideas on paper. This allows me to clear my mind and create room for new ideas and priorities,” says Kurdy. By expressing herself on paper, she can take a step back, evaluate what needs to be accomplished and stay focused on the important tasks at hand.
There are so many things to remember throughout the week, ranging from your household duties to work assignments. It’s overwhelming and can lead to a build-up of anxiety. So, once you note down your tasks - take a look at what can be automated and delegated, says Coakley. Keep reminders on your phone. See if there are options for automatic renewals and payments. The seemingly small tasks can be dealt with too - like just preparing food the previous night, so you have one less thing to worry about in the morning. See what tasks can be delegated to your colleagues, spouse or family, where you aren’t required to oversee.
Downtime and sensory grounding
After a grueling day, we function on autopilot.
Take around 30 minutes, or an hour where you completely switch off from your devices, explains John. Focus on the sights, smells and noises around you. “You need that brain break, where you are cut off from devices. You are being with just you. Just notice things around you and listen to sounds, or recall your favourite smells. Ground yourself with your senses,” she explains.
John explains the need to be more aware of oneself, during the day. “We need to be aware of the emotions that we’re feeling, frustration, and stress,” she adds. “Squeeze in that time to go for walks outside office cubicles, as that benefits your emotional and physical health.” We need those breaks, or else we descend into the burnout stage. “People get so fatigued otherwise that they find it hard to do basic tasks, like just getting ready or making breakfast. Put the needs of the body first, before anything else,” adds John.