We’ve heard many personal stories this week of how people in our industry have experienced hard times and how they managed to get out of them. We end this week with an article by Ann Holm, a personal development coach and expert in psychology and brain science. Read on to learn how to reduce stress in your everyday life and prevent burnout and other breakdowns in order to stay healthy and unlock your potential. — Ed.
What does knowledge of the brain and personality have to do with creative work? As a lifelong brain geek, I have taken on the mission to help others tap the secrets of the brain to uncover personal potential. Not surprisingly, everyone can benefit from at least some knowledge in this area.
In fact, I’ve found that people who work in the creative industry in particular seem to be interested in this topic because many of them work alone and have to manage their energy, distractions and time to complete a project, while staying flexible and in the moment to capture the unforeseen creative gems that emerge seemingly out of nowhere.
"Everyone who’s taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference." – Nolan Bushnell, video-game visionary and Atari founder
Oftentimes we have habits that seem to work, so we are unaware that there might be better, more brain-efficient ways to do things. Other times, we feel exhausted and stretched, so our creativity suffers. In this article, I’ll share some facts and insight on brain functionality, as well as tips on how to get the most out of your creative energy. Some of these suggestions might be very different from what you are doing right now.
Multitasking: A Rapid Way To Deplete Brain Energy
Like many web designers and developers, you might work in a small business or even as a single entity. This means you need to master and implement several skills:
- your creative work,
- your networking tasks,
- your administrative tasks.
While this makes you versatile, it can also lead to multitasking or plate-spinning. What is the most effective way to perform all of your roles, while still maximizing creativity?
In the old days, before computers, smartphones, social media and the like, interrupting someone’s train of thought was verboten — and for good reason. The brain is not meant to multitask. In fact, multitasking is a myth. Multitasking is actually task-switching, and it is among the most rapid ways to deplete brain energy. Every time you perform a task, the most energy-hungry area of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, has to recruit a different collection of brain cells to carry out the task you are trying to accomplish. You use different brain networks to work on projects, to respond to a phone call, and to check email and social media.
John Medina, author of Brain Rules, tells the story of his son trying to write a paper for school with 11 other applications running, including two instant-messaging screens! Every time he switches his attention, his brain has to engage, disengage and reengage somewhere else. Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task and makes 50% more errors in the process.
Here are a few tips to avoid the pitfalls of task-switching:
- Work uninterrupted for a designated period of time.. Brain research shows that 25 minutes is approximately the amount of time it takes to “get on a roll.” Set a timer if necessary. Do only that one important task during that time.
- Check email and social media at designated times.. Email and social media notifications not only create those task-switching scenarios, but can result in a protracted diversion from your intended work.
- Minimize distraction with internal and external management.
Manage Distractions With Internal And External Management
Distractions can be managed either internally or externally. Internal management requires additional brain energy, sometimes a considerable amount of it. It’s a form of willpower. A classic example is the individual who is trying to lose weight but keeps all kinds of tempting food in the house. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is instructive here.
I am a business owner myself. I coach, blog, maintain a website and develop curricula for leadership-development workshops. I use social media, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. By far, my biggest distraction was Facebook on my iPhone. I have a personal page in addition to my business page, and I found it way too easy to check my latest push notifications. So, I deleted the app from my phone. Now I wasn’t one click away from another diversion.
There are many ways to manage distractions externally so that the brain doesn’t get exhausted in the process. In my college days, I taped myself to a chair to finish term papers, thus eliminating the possibility of wandering off to chat with a friend. Nowadays, I ask myself, how can I make a distraction so difficult to execute that I don’t even consider doing it?
A young client used the following strategy to externally manage his biggest distraction:
"The biggest distraction of my life is my phone. I had a large project due, so I decided to try your suggestion. I took the phone out of my pocket, shut it off, put the cover on backward, and placed it on a high shelf. Amazingly, I got everything done, and I got it done fast."
Distractions are best managed by eliminating them from your immediate environment — or by making them so difficult to execute that you don’t even consider them.
Here are a few tips on externally managing distractions:
- Turn off your phone or place it in another room.
- If you have to take calls, disable Internet access on your phone.. Some phones have a “do not disturb” function that only allows calls from a list of defined numbers (such as emergency numbers) to minimize disruption to your workflow.
Sleep Well To Uncover Your Potential
“Sleep while you’re dead“ was my philosophy for years. I was a dedicated night owl, often denying that I needed much sleep at all. In truth, only 10% of the population do their best work at night, and few people can get by on less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, night after night.
It is possible that the creative industry has a slightly higher percentage of night owls or those who can get by on very little sleep. However, the chances are high that most people need the same amount of sleep in order to function optimally. Many of us keep going at night because we are too tired to put ourselves to bed.
Recently, I attended a seminar titled “The Ever-Changing Brain.” I was struck by the impact of sleep deprivation on every aspect of our lives. John Preston, Psy.D, wasn’t talking about simply doing time in bed. He was talking about the deeply restorative sleep that affects our ability to regulate our emotions, solve problems and think creatively. Sleep researchers say that, in the absence of slow-wave sleep, our pain threshold decreases and our cognition and focus are reduced. Depression is a long-term consequence of poor sleep quality.
Sleep behavior is largely a result of sleeping habits. Even a few small adjustments can have a profound affect on sleep quality:
- Exercise regularly throughout the day.. However, avoid exercising close to bedtime or it will have the opposite effect.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sleeping pills.. These substances interfere with restorative sleep, especially when you consume them close to bedtime. Sleeping pills can affect your sleep patterns long term.
- Trend towards calmer evenings.. Your brain needs time to calm down. Stop working several hours before going to bed, and fill those hours with calm and relaxing activities.
- Avoid blue light at least an hour before bed.. The blue light of computer screens and bright sources of light affect our sleep. Avoid them at least an hour before bed. Additionally, you can manage the light of your computer screen with the f.lux app.
- Sleep in a cool room and ventilate before going to bed.. Sufficient oxygen supply is important for your brain to recover from a hard day of work.
Eat Well And Exercise To Maximize Your Potential
My great Aunt Marian grew up on a diet of fatty meat, dumplings and potatoes. Vegetables were usually cucumbers doused in bacon grease. She smoked for 80 years and loved her scotch. She broke every health rule and yet lived with a clear mind until she died in her mid-90s.
Aunt Marian was lucky and probably genetically exceptional. Current brain research suggests that most of us probably couldn’t pull this off. Although we’re more aware of the benefits of eating healthy and exercising than we have been in the past, the stresses of the modern world and the increasing pace and pressure of our lives affect us more than we might think. Traveling to conferences and clients adds another layer of stress to our lives. We know now that small yet measurable brain declines already happen in a person’s late-20s.
Anxiety is common in developed countries, and the lifetime risk for severe depression is 20%. A hundred years ago, the risk was 1%. Because many creatives work on projects that they’re passionate about, they often don’t realize how much stress they’re putting themselves through and the negative effects this can have on their bodies. Burn-out often occurs after a phase of idealistic passion for something.
Stress is caused not only by the number of tasks we have to complete, but also by emotional events in our lives. This could be the death of a beloved one, a divorce or break-up, or tensions in our family or social circle. We have to acknowledge that our brain needs additional capacity for us to emotionally deal with these problems.
In short, we have to take care of our brains in order to get many years of creative output:
- Keep weight within the normal range.. Excess weight, a poor lifestyle and a lack of sleep set off the inflammatory process.
- Reduce or eliminate sugar.. Evidence is emerging that sugar is a significant cause of inflammation. Inflammation is system-wide. Therefore, if you feel unwell after eating something, then your whole body, including your brain, could be affected. Keep this in mind when attending conferences and meetings, where unhealthy food is often easily obtainable. Investing some time and money in eating healthy could result in a better creative output later on.
- Supply your body with omega-3 fatty acids.. Many supplements don’t work. However, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have been proven to benefit the brain.
- Exercise regularly.. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain. Exercise not only will bring about creativity in the moment, but will benefit the brain in the long run.
- Build and maintain relationships and interests outside of work.. This is important to avoiding depression and burn-out.
- Don’t underestimate the effects of emotional events. If an emotional event happens in your life, take some extra time out so that you’re brain is able to effectively deal with it. For example, go for a walk outside or a bike ride or meet up with people who can help you through this situation.
A Real-Life Example
Recently, a client confessed to me that she was staying up well past 1:00 and 2:00 am because she was a night owl. When I asked her what she was doing at that hour, she said she was “researching” various topics on the Internet. As we discussed this further, she conceded that she was really just surfing the web and couldn’t fall sleep any sooner. I explained that when we get very tired, we lose some of our willpower to move away from what we are doing and head off for a good night’s rest. She agreed to try an earlier bedtime and to turn off her computer screen at least 30 minutes before that. I further suggested she use the Sleep Cycle app to get solid data on her sleeping patterns. Ten days later, I received this email:
"I’ve been using the Sleep Cycle app most nights since we talked and I’m shocked. I knew that I often didn’t get as much sleep as I should, but I hadn’t realized just how bad it was. If the last week and a half is any indication — and I have no reason to think it’s an anomaly — I rarely get eight hours’ sleep on a weeknight. I hadn’t realized just how much time I’m wasting online before I go to sleep on a regular basis. This is a huge thing to work on. Thank you for this wake-up call."
Several months later, she continues to report better sleep and better results in her work. It’s not that she doesn’t do any more night benders, but she is more aware of her need for sleep and how it affects her work.
No matter what a person’s career is, we are all first and foremost human, and we have evolved with a certain physiology that is not altogether compatible with modern life. Our ancestors walked up to 20 kilometers a day and focused on one thing at a time. We woke with the sun, slept when it was dark and ate the available natural food. Our lives today are vastly different from the conditions that mapped our ancestral brains, and yet modern living has not significantly changed our basic neural framework.
The main take-away is to be open-minded about how you might be compromising your own success and productivity by relying on habits that run counter to how we are wired to live and thrive. Experiment with some of the principles described in this article and see whether a few small changes make a big difference in your overall productivity.
These are only a few suggestions to help maximize your potential. Feel free to share your own tips and strategies below in the comments sections.
- 5 Tips for the Healthy Frequent Traveller, Rachel Andrew
- How I Have Lost Over 100 Pounds and Don’t Know How, Dion Almaer Mozilla developer Dion Almaer outlines how changing his habits of eating, exercise and sleep expanded his mindset and transformed his entire life.
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John J. Ratey
- F.lux The website for this app includes research on the effects of blue light on sleep.
- Sleep Cycle alarm clock (iPhone app)
- How To Enhance Your Creativity – Taming The Wild Mind
- Fostering Healthy Non-Professional Relationships
- Ignorance is Bliss for a Creative Mind
- How I Make Ideas Happen – 5 Tips
- A Guide To Personal Side Projects