Here's What a Perfect Workday for Your Brain Looks Like
What would it take to be more productive at work? What about to be more productive and happier? As it turns out, the two goals may not be as divergent as you might think. In his book The Best Place to Work, psychologist Ron Friedman, Ph.D., reveals the best way to structure your day to get the most done. Friedman recently spoke with Harvard Business Review about how employees can optimize their schedules to improve their output and boost their mood—scroll below for all the details.
You arrive at the office, sit down at your desk, and what’s the first thing you do? If you’re like most people, you check your emails or voicemails—after all, you want to respond to anything important. Despite how well-intentioned this may be, being responsive first thing in the morning is actually, as Friedman phrases it, “cognitively expensive.” The majority of us only have a window of two or three hours during which we’re very focused and capable of the sharpest thinking and planning. Usually, this timeframe is first thing in the morning. If we end of spending these early hours checking email and responding to other people’s demands, it forfeits our best, most productive time over to something that can likely wait. Additionally, Friedman notes that answering emails actually puts us in a reactive—rather than active—mindset. Whereas it is easy to transition from active to reactive, it is more difficult to go from reactive (so, answering emails) to active (brainstorming, problem-solving, and so on).
The Solution: Develop the habit at the beginning of each workday to engage in a brief planning session—just for yourself. Strategize first, execute second. Dive into your most important tasks early on, and then circle back to your inbox.
We’ve all been there. It’s 3 p.m., we’ve already had lunch, and we can barely keep our eyes open. That Excel spreadsheet is swimming on the screen, and we desperately want a nap. How, then, do we salvage this time and make it more useful? Interestingly, Friedman suggests that we may in fact be better at being creative when we are fatigued. Though somewhat counterintuitive, it turns out that creative work requires a good bit of mental driftings. In order to be creative, you really do need to consider those types of ideas that may not seem “on topic” at first glance.
The Solution: Recognize that you are not the same person at 3 p.m. as you are at 9 a.m. Take those fluctuations of energy into account and plan to do the less taxing work in this afternoon period: Answer those emails; take a lower-priority meeting; or plan a brainstorming session and let those ambling thoughts flow freely.
Friedman says that if you want your teams to be more collaborative and to improve employees’ spirits, exercise—or at least some degree of physical activity—is imperative. The benefits extend beyond our physique to our mental aptitude and health. Exercise causes increased blood-flow to the brain, activates memory regions (which improves learning and retention skills), and produces those beloved good-mood endorphins.
The Solution: Reframe exercise as something we do to be more productive at whatever it is we are doing, rather than a selfish or superficial pursuit. Find a time where it feels the most fun (so, not necessarily 5 a.m.!), and make it a habit. More and more workplaces are offering flexible mornings or longer lunches to accommodate exercise.
Here’s a big one: After that 10-hour day, how do we disconnect and carry on with our lives, our families, and non-work relationships and interests? Naturally, being able to unwind after work is crucial for mental health, for maintaining a healthy life-work balance, as well as for promoting long-lasting engagement. Studies show that people who don’t disengage, but rather stay plugged in on weeknights and weekends, tend to be less engaged with their work a year later.
The Solution: If possible, place your phone in a different room. Use different devices for distinct purposes to cut down on the temptation to check work email. And if you have a great work-related idea after that glass of wine, allow yourself to write it down, but hold yourself to the standard of waiting to take action on it.
So your office doesn’t have a ping-pong table—no sweat. Play simply means anything you do for fun without a specific purpose or goal in mind. Reading, flipping through magazines, playing video games, watching movies, cooking, or gardening—all of them qualify. Friedman notes that play can actually open us up to alternative ways of thinking, causing us to take risks or become curious about new subjects.
The Solution: Prioritize play as a mindset. Promote the idea that it is okay to pursue your curiosities even if they don’t have an immediate workplace reward.
Head to the Harvard Business Review to listen to the entire podcast and learn more about the art and science of effective workplaces.
What do you think of these tenets of a better workday? Share the thoughts in the comments!