Posts

Do you feel connected, or tethered?

While you’re mulling that over, here’s another one: Can you handle downtime?  The art of loafing — made famous by such characters as Huckleberry Finn; the morbidly obese passengers of the spaceship, Axiom, in the Pixar movie WALL-E; and cats everywhere – has its good points.  There’s something to be said for taking some time to daydream.

Tell that to the experts who want to help us stay on task and be more productive.  “We’ve come to consider focus and being on as ‘good,’ and idleness – especially if it goes on for too long – as ‘bad’ and unproductive.  We feel guilty if we spend too much time doing nothing,” says Stanford psychologist Emma Seppälä, Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.  She has written a book, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success.

Goofing off in moderation can be very helpful, especially when you’re trying to think creatively.  In fact, Seppälä says, truly successful people “are successful because they make time to not concentrate.”  By just leaving the desk and taking a walk, for instance.  “As a consequence, they think inventively and are profoundly creative.  They develop innovative solutions to problems and connect dots in brilliant ways.”

Here are three simple ways you can “unfocus” your hard-working brain – and free it up for tackling problems in new ways:

mindless wanderingDo something mindless.  Don’t just sit there staring at your computer or focusing on one monumental task.  “To get a new perspective on something, we actually need to disengage from it,” Seppälä says. Don’t worry – your brain keeps right on working on a problem, even when you aren’t actively thinking about it.  Take a shower, or go for a walk around the block, or empty the dishwasher.  You and your brain will feel refreshed.

Do nothing at all.  Silence is powerful, says Seppälä.  Meditation or even just taking a “silence break” helps you think outside the box.  This is not that easy for many of us:  “When your mind wanders, thoughts and feelings can emerge that are not necessarily pleasant.  Being alone or being un-busy or quiet can open the door to troublesome thoughts or even anxiety.”  But hang in there.  If you keep at it, you can sit through these thoughts, “or walk through them, if your silent practice is a hike or a walk,” and “they will eventually pass, leaving room for free-flowing thoughts and daydreams.”  Doing nothing is its own form of exercise, and you get better with practice.

Play.  “We are the only adult mammals who do not make time for play, outside of highly structured settings like a Sunday neighborhood soccer game or playtime with a child,” says Seppälä.  Play stimulates positive emotion, and this, in turn, leads to “greater insight and better problem solving.”  Feeling good helps you see the bigger picture, instead of feeling trapped by the details.  If you’ve gotten rusty at playing, don’t worry – this is a skill that can be relearned.

And now, back to feeling constantly connected to the world:  this is not as good as thing as the smartphone makers would like you to believe.  Just ask Jenna Woginrich, who gave up her smartphone 18 months ago.   She wrote about it in the UK newspaper, The Guardian.

She didn’t just get a low-tech flip phone to “simplify.”  No, she jettisoned having a cell phone – any cell phone — altogether.

She doesn’t miss it.  She still has a computer and a landline.  “There are a dozen ways to contact me between e-mail and social media,” she says.  “My phone has become ‘the phone.’ It’s no longer my personal assistant; it has reverted back to being a piece of furniture – like ‘the fridge’ or ‘the couch,’ two other items you also wouldn’t carry around on your butt.  I didn’t get rid of it for some hipster-inspired Luddite ideal… I cut myself off because my life is better without a cell phone.  I’m less distracted and less accessible, two things I didn’t realize were far more important than instantly knowing how many movies Kevin Kline’s been in at a moment’s notice.”

connected cablesEven though her friends think her decision was nuts, she feels “rich,” she says, because the addiction was getting to her.  “I hated that anyone, for any reason, could interrupt my life.”  Worse, she adds, “I was constantly checking e-mails and social media, or playing games.  When I found out I could download audiobooks, the earbuds never left my lobes.  I was a hard user.  I loved every second of it. I even slept with my phone by my side.  It was what I fell asleep watching, and it was the alarm that woke me up.  It was never turned off… It got so bad that I grew uncomfortable with any 30-second span of hands-free idleness.  I felt obligated to reply to every Facebook comment, text, tweet and game request.”

No mas.  She got clean.  “I look people in the eye.  I eat food instead of photographing it and am not driving half a ton of metal into oncoming traffic while looking down at a tiny screen… And while I might be missing out on being able to call 911 at any moment, it’s worth the sacrifice to me.”

Woginrich says she’s glad to be back in the world again.  “It beats waiting for the notification alert telling me that I exist.”

You probably don’t want to give up your smartphone.  But think about putting more distance between yourself and it.  Loosen the tether, and see what happens.

 

©Janet Farrar Worthington

300_200_hard_workI may not know you personally, but I know that, because you’re a man, chances are good that you do two things. One, you most likely respond to health issues with denial. I can relate to this – I do it, too.

And two, when things get tough, you just put your head down and keep going. You work harder, trying to take care of your family and not let anyone down at your job. Trust me on this, because I know and love the men in my family who do these same things:

[Tweet “You need a vacation. Time off. Relaxation. Your body needs it.”]

A famous neurosurgeon in Baltimore, when he used to interview residents, would ask them to show him something they had made with their hands. He did this because he knew how demanding the job was, how much pressure there was, and that being able to relax and take the time to tinker, or play a musical instrument, or whittle, or work on a car, not only calms you down and boosts your mental health, it can help you live longer and keep you healthier. A study from the Mind-Body Center at the University of Pittsburgh, of nearly 1,400 people who were taking part in other health studies, found that people who had more leisure activities had more satisfaction in life, found more meaning, were more spiritual, and basically just more positive in general. And that’s just down time, which we all need. But we also need to kick it up a notch and take actual vacations.

The Framingham Heart Study is a long-term study, started in 1948 in Framingham, Massachusetts, by what’s now the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Over the years, they have followed thousands of participants, three generations of families who come back every two years for laboratory tests, a history and physical. Among their many important findings over the years was this one, from a study that looked at the effects of vacations in more than 12,000 men over a nine-year period. Men who didn t take vacations for several years had a 21-percent higher likelihood of dying, and were 32 percent more likely to have a heart attack than men who got away from work for at least one week a year. There was a definitive link between taking vacations and living longer, and staying healthier. The more vacations a man took, the longer he lived. Not taking a vacation doesn’t mean that you are going to have a heart attack, but it does mean that your risk of having one is most likely going up a little bit.

Does this mean you need to spend a lot of money to go on a cruise, or stay in a fancy hotel? Heck, no! But it does mean that you need to shut off the working guy for a few days, ideally a week, and be the relaxing guy. Resist the urge to check your work e-mail and phone messages! Resist it as if your life depends on it. Go fishing. Read a book. Wander around a museum, if that floats your boat. Or float in a real-life boat! Go to the movies, take a hike, play golf, go see a baseball game. Lie on a blanket and watch the clouds roll by. Whatever you do, do something you enjoy, and do it for several days straight. You have to break the cycle of lifestyle stress – commuting to work, being stressed at work, being stressed when you come home at family issues and all the things you need to do around the house, not
sleeping well – at least once a year.

We’ll talk more about stress in future posts, but when you get stressed, among other bad things that happen, your body makes a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol sucks. It ages you faster, and also makes your waistline thicker. When our ancestors were running away from mammoths or something equally horrible, their bodies produced cortisol and adrenaline. We still do, too. The adrenaline fades, but the cortisol makes our bodies think, as our Stone Age ancestors might have, “Maybe there’ll be no more food! I’d better eat while I can!” And when we eat in this situation, that weight tends to stay right in the worst possible place for heart attack risk – the belly.

When you come back from your vacation, chances are good that you will be more productive and that you’ll have a mental cushion that will protect you from burnout. Even if you get all stressed out the minute you walk back in the office and see 500 e-mails and a big pile of work. Dont worry, that s okay! You will have that cushion, and it will protect you, even if the glow of vacation is fading faster than the poster of Farrah Fawcett that used to hang up in your bedroom when you were a kid. Look at it this way: Say you have a great night’s sleep. You’re going to get tired again the next day, but that doesn’t mean that your body didn’t benefit from the good, healing sleep you had. It’s like recharging a battery. It’s money in the bank.

We Americans are mostly bad at taking vacations. In Europe, many employers give at least three weeks, and in France, many people take off for an entire month. In America, if we’re lucky, we get maybe two weeks, and one study done by the Families and Work Institute found that fewer than half of us use all of our allotted vacation days. Working parents, for instance, hoard them, so they can be there for their kids if they are sick. I’ve done it, and I can tell you that, although it’s a blessing to be there for your child, that’s not a vacation!

I would add that, when you plan your trip, don’t try to do too much. Ambition here is not what you need. Also, if you have a job that just wont give you a whole week off at once, you can still help your body and mind by taking more breaks, a weekend here and there.

Finally, I would like to leave you with the very sad case of Li Yuan, a Chinese advertising executive who died of a heart attack at age 24. For the entire month before he died, he had been staying late at the office, working until nearly midnight. A report from China said that more than 600,000 workers in that country die of exhaustion every year. That is just so wrong. Don’t be that guy. Take care of yourself.

©Janet Farrar Worthington