From Multitasking to Mindfulness: the importance of Breaks and Sleep

From Multitasking to Mindfulness: the importance of Breaks and Sleep

May 22, 2017: Weekly Curated Thought-Sharing on Digital Disruption, Applied Neuroscience and Other Interesting Related Matters.

By Lewis Robinson and Dr. Travis Bradberry

Curated by Helena M. Herrero Lamuedra

On the surface, multitasking seems like a winning proposition. After all, if you work on two projects at once, then you’ll finish twice as quickly, right? It’s a perfect situation! How can you lose?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. When you try to focus on two different projects, you divide your attention, and your brain has to expend additional energy each time you switch from one task to the other. Often, it will actually end up taking you longer to get the work done.

Negative Effects of Multitasking

Multitasking is not only an inefficient use of your time; it can actually have a negative impact, both on your work and your personal well-being. Let’s take a look at a few of the problems it can bring about:

Diluted Focus

If you’re splitting your attention between two, or three, or even more tasks at once, that means that you’re not able to focus on any one of them. The brain is an incredible tool, but it can only go so far before it starts to experience diminishing returns. Guy Winch, a PhD and author of the book Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries posits than we’re not really “multitasking” at all. Instead, we’re “task-switching.”

“When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” says Winch. “It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.” You’re never really able to focus on one task enough to get “in the zone.”

Lower Productivity

This may seem counterintuitive, but the more tasks you work on at a time, the less work you will get done. Most people resort to multitasking as a way to get more done, not less. But working distracted can lead to slower performance and more mistakes. In fact, shifting back and forth between two or more tasks create mental blocks where your brain has to shift its focus. These blocks can cost as much as 40% of your regular productive time.

Health Complications

Multitasking increases stress, which isn’t always bad in the short-term, but can lead to serious complications if it goes on for too long. Chronic stress causes your body to produce more cortisol, which can bring on physical complications, such as heart issues, high blood pressure, and a diminished immune system.

What to Do About It

Even when you recognize the negative effects multitasking can have on your work, it’s still tempting to try to work on several jobs at once.

Delegate as Needed

Instead of splitting one mind among several tasks, try the opposite tactic. Spread the load out a bit and assign certain jobs to other team members who may be able to lend a hand. Put a work structure in place with the goal of keeping any particular employee’s queue from filling up too much.

Manage Your (and Your Team’s) Workflow

This is essentially just another way of saying, “Plan ahead.” Keep an eye on what projects you and your team have coming down the pipeline. If you know there will be a huge project that you will need to focus all of your attention on in the next month, do what you can to clear other tasks from that time. Prepare yourself and your team members for any eventuality.

This also means setting priorities. If everything you send to your team is marked “ASAP,” then they have no way to know which tasks to tackle first. This usually leads to employees bouncing back and forth between each task, trying to get them all done quickly. Eventually, instead of everything getting done immediately, nothing ends up getting done.

Take Regular Breaks

Oddly enough, taking breaks can actually lead to more getting done. If you are constantly working, with no end in sight, it’s easy to get burned out. Shorter bursts of work are more productive, so you and your team should take a break anywhere between every 50 minutes and every 90 minutes. This will give you the occasional moment to unwind from the constant focus, leading to better results over the long term.

The next time you tell yourself that you’ll sleep when you’re dead, realize that you’re making a decision that can make that day come much sooner. Pushing late into the night is a health and productivity killer.

According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, the short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood, ability to focus, and access to higher-level brain functions for days to come. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep.

Why You Need Adequate Sleep to Perform

We’ve always known that sleep is good for your brain, but new research from the University of Rochester provides the first direct evidence for why your brain cells need you to sleep (and sleep the right way—more on that later). The study found that when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons that are by-products of neural activity when you’re awake. Unfortunately, your brain can remove them adequately only while you’re asleep. So when you don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, wreaking havoc by impairing your ability to think—something no amount of caffeine can fix.

Skipping sleep impairs your brain function across the board. It slows your ability to process information and problem solve, kills your creativity, and catapults your stress levels and emotional reactivity.

What Sleep Deprivation Does to Your Health

Sleep deprivation is linked to a variety of serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. It stresses you out because your body overproduces the stress hormone cortisol when it’s sleep deprived. While excess cortisol has a host of negative health effects that come from the havoc it wreaks on your immune system, it also makes you look older, because cortisol breaks down skin collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic. In men specifically, not sleeping enough reduces testosterone levels and lowers sperm count.

Too many studies to list have shown that people who get enough sleep live longer, healthier lives, but I understand that sometimes this isn’t motivation enough. So consider this—not sleeping enough makes you fat. Sleep deprivation compromises your body’s ability to metabolize carbohydrates and control food intake. When you sleep less you eat more and have more difficulty burning the calories you consume. Sleep deprivation makes you hungrier by increasing the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and makes it harder for you to get full by reducing levels of the satiety-inducing hormone leptin. People who sleep less than 6 hours a night are 30% more likely to become obese than those who sleep 7 to 9 hours a night.

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

Most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night to feel sufficiently rested. Few people are at their best with less than 7 hours, and few require more than 9 without an underlying health condition. And that’s a major problem, since more than half of Americans get less than the necessary 7 hours of sleep each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

A recent survey of Inc. 500 CEOs found that half of them are sleeping less than 6 hours a night. And the problem doesn’t stop at the top. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of U.S. workers get less than 6 hours of sleep each night, and sleep deprivation costs U.S. businesses more than $63 billion annually in lost productivity.

Doing Something about It

Beyond the obvious sleep benefits of thinking clearly and staying healthy, the ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance.

When life gets in the way of getting the amount of sleep you need, it’s absolutely essential that you increase the quality of your sleep through good sleep hygiene. There are many hidden killers of quality sleep.

There are some strategies to help identify these killers and clean up your sleep hygiene.

Moderate Caffeine (at Least after Lunch)

You can sleep more and vastly improve the quality of the sleep you get by reducing your caffeine intake. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that interferes with sleep by increasing adrenaline production and blocking sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain.

When you do finally fall asleep, the worst is yet to come. Caffeine disrupts the quality of your sleep by reducing rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the deep sleep when your body recuperates most. When caffeine disrupts your sleep, you wake up the next day with a cognitive and emotional handicap. You’ll be naturally inclined to grab a cup of coffee or an energy drink to try to make yourself feel more alert, which very quickly creates a vicious cycle.

Avoid Blue Light at Night

Short-wavelength blue light plays an important role in your mood, energy level, and sleep quality. In the morning, sunlight contains high concentrations of this “blue” light. When your eyes are exposed to it directly (not through a window or while wearing sunglasses), the blue light halts production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and makes you feel more alert. This is great, and exposure to a.m. sunlight can improve your mood and energy levels.

In the afternoon, the sun’s rays lose their blue light, which allows your body to produce melatonin and start making you sleepy. By the evening, your brain does not expect any blue light exposure and is very sensitive to it. The problem this creates for sleep is that most of our favorite evening devices—laptops, tablets, televisions, and mobile phones—emit short-wavelength blue light. This exposure impairs melatonin production and interferes with your ability to fall asleep as well as with the quality of your sleep once you do nod off. When you confuse your brain by exposing it in the evening to what it thinks is a.m. sunlight, this derails the entire process with effects that linger long after you power down.

Stop Working

When you work in the evening, it puts you into a stimulated, alert state when you should be winding down and relaxing in preparation for sleep. Recent surveys show that roughly 60% of people monitor their smartphones for work emails until they go to sleep. Staying off blue light-emitting devices (discussed above) after a certain time each evening is also a great way to avoid working so you can relax and prepare for sleep, but any type of work before bed should be avoided if you want quality sleep.

Try Meditation

Many people who learn to meditate report that it improves the quality of their sleep and that they can get the rest they need even if they aren’t able to significantly increase the number of hours they sleep. At the Stanford Medical Center, insomniacs participated in a 6-week mindfulness meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy course. At the end of the study, participants’ average time to fall asleep was cut in half (from 40 to 20 minutes), and 60% of subjects no longer qualified as insomniacs. The subjects retained these gains upon follow-up a full year later. A similar study at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that 91% of participants either reduced the amount of medication they needed to sleep or stopped taking medication entirely after a mindfulness and sleep therapy course. Give mindfulness a try. At minimum, you’ll fall asleep faster, as it will teach you how to relax and quiet your mind once you hit the pillow.

Bringing It All Together

We all know someone who is always up at all hours of the night working or socializing, and is the number one performer at. the office. Watch out: this person is underperforming, may be not yet. After all, the only thing worth catching up on at night is your sleep.

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