Want to Increase Your Productivity? Take it Easy

We, freelancers, are convinced that we cannot afford to slow down – especially when the business is young and you are trying to make a name for yourself. Your time is now. You got to hustle and bustle, give it your 101% and look i-woke-up-like-this fabulous. You should also work less and preferably four days a week, spend time on passion projects and meditate to be a successful business person.

With all the contradicting advice we settle on chasing the dream 24/7 and say ‘I can’t, I am too busy’ proudly when somebody asks us out for lunch. We think we need a six-figure salary to start taking vacations. Even sleep becomes a matter of choice, rather than necessity. This is how many of us board the train headed to station Burnout Central calling at Anxiety, Depression, and Self-Doubt. Instead of making an impact, we sabotage our performance.

I have discovered a very long time ago that taking care of myself is the best way to increase my productivity and the quality of my work. In this article, I will let you in on the secrets of a happy and fulfilled life as a freelancer supported by scientific data and research. Hint: it has a lot to do with taking it easy.

Sleep more

Sleep is an often underestimated life function by those, who have more to gain by staying up. Or have they?

Arianna Huffington, the author of The Sleep Revolution, wrote that “We sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity, but ironically our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we spend at work, adds up to 11 days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280.” Essentially, you are losing money by not sleeping enough!

Moreover, you aren’t suffering from financial losses only by neglecting to sleep – your overall performance decreases too. Daniel Levitin writes in his amazing book ‘The Organized Mind‘ that ’sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example, going to bed late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterwards.’ It means that you are doing yourself a disservice if you continue skipping night rest. In fact, you should start adding power naps to your daily routine because ‘even five- or ten-minute “power naps” yield significant cognitive enhancement, improvement in memory, and increased productivity. And the more intellectual the work, the greater the payoff. Naps also allow for the recalibration of our emotional equilibrium—after being exposed to angry and frightening stimuli, a nap can turn around negative emotions and increase happiness.’ (Daniel Levitin, the same book).

Hide your mobile phone

Mobile phones have made our lives much easier but they are one of the biggest culprits in the increasingly shorter attention span. The always-quoted Microsft 2015 study in Canada had a lot to say about how digital technology made humans better at processing information but also proved that ‘overall, digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments‘.

Think about it – how many times will you reach for a mobile phone when you are working, even if it has not notified you of a new message? The constant distraction does not go unnoticed as multitasking achieves the opposite results. ‘That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing,‘ writes Daniel Levitin.

The heaviest smartphone users click, tap or swipe on their phone 5,427 times a day, with 2,617 times being a daily average (source). This amounts to 145 minutes per day. While not every interaction you have with your phone is needless, plenty people habitually use their phones at work and home, not letting their brains take the needed break to process information. What’s worse, you can literally max out your brain’s capacity to memorise information by overusing technology! ‘When we attempt to stuff more information in the working memory, our capacity for processing information begins to fail’ (Brain exposed to social media browsing can easily become hobbled by information overload). Not to mention becoming emotionally unstable:

Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. (Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Your Career, New Studies Suggest)

Just to drive the point home, I will quote another research on mobile phones, which results hold no positive prognosis for us. Adrian Ward et al discovered in a study published in 2017, that ‘even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity‘. In fact, these cognitive costs are highest for those, who are in particular dependent on their smartphones.

Are you ready to hide your phone when working now?

Way to increase productivity for freelancers

Source: Microsoft Attention Spans Research Report

Get distracted at the right time

Just because you are working more hours, it does not mean you are working more. Are you 100% focused on this article or longingly looking out of the window, listening in on other people’s conversations, thinking about dinner and that pair of shoes you saw yesterday? Mental unavailability at times when you are supposed to be focused can seriously obstruct your work, but not many people know that letting yourself be distracted is an amazingly effective creativity boost. The trick is to be distracted at the right time.

Some experts say that people tune things out for good reasons and that over time boredom becomes a tool for sorting information—an increasingly sensitive spam filter. In various fields including neuroscience and education, research suggests that ‘falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive’ (Source: You’re Bored, but Your Brain Is Tuned In, New York Times).

Space out your workload

Our brains can maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes at a time. If you work continuously for three hours straight, you put yourself in danger of fatigue. In Meijman’s view, ‘fatigue’ is a psychophysiological state that is characterized by a low level of energy, high level of irritability and a lack of motivation to exert any further effort (Meijman, T. F., 1991, About Fatigue). This basically means you are unconsciously sabotaging your efforts and the quality of your work-life. Fast Company brings up the widely cited study of prodigious violinists by psychologist Anders Ericsson. He found that the top performers all had the same practice characteristics:

  • They practised in the morning
  • They practised for three sessions
  • Each session was 90 minutes or less
  • There was a break between each session

If 90 minutes is a struggle, I suggest trying out the Pomodoro Technique, which recommends 25 minute long bursts of focused work followed by a short break (5 minutes). Every 4 full cycles, take a longer break. You can use this handy browser Tomato Timer for a start.

Learn how to simply be

In our society, it’s natural to value people, who excel. It’s an automatic reaction to praise an employee for leaving the office last or admiring those, who buzz from event to event. This causes a dissonance between those who do what comes naturally to them and the people, who haven’t figured out their natural affinities or are forcing themselves to do what they are not cut out for. We are adding extra projects trying to figure ourselves out instead of polishing what we are good at but too scared to pursue. We are defining ourselves through our work, which is an externalised part of our lives, often controlled by someone else (the boss, the client, current market mood).

A book titled ‘Stand Firm’ written by Professor Svend Brinkmann from the Department Communication and Psychology at Aalborg University Denmark opposes the idea that everybody has to be undergoing a soul-searching self-improvement process, which is enforced by cheap self-help books. The end result of believing to be ‘work in progress’ is a constant feeling of unworthiness which drives us to work tirelessly and justify not taking a break because we have to do better than that. ‘In our secular world, we no longer see eternal paradise as a carrot at the end of the stick of life but try to cram as much as possible into our relatively short time on the planet instead. This is, of course, a futile endeavour, doomed to failure. It is tempting to interpret the modern epidemics of depression and burnout as the individual’s response to the unbearable nature of constant acceleration. The decelerating individual – who slows down instead of speeding up, and maybe even stops completely – seems out of place in a culture characterised by manic development and may be interpreted pathologically ‘ he writes.

Go offline regularly

David Solomon, the global co-head of investment banking at Goldman, told James Surowiecki in this NYT piece titled The Cult of Overwork ‘Today, technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.’ While being able to go online almost everywhere is a technological miracle, it brought in disorders such as FOMO or FOBO, anxieties, amplifying your exposure to content you might now want to see all day long.

‘Internal recovery refers to the shorter periods of relaxation that take place within the frames of the workday or the work setting (Geurts & Sonnentag,2006; Veldhoven & Sluiter, 2010) in the form of short-scheduled or unscheduled breaks, by shifting attention or changing to other work tasks when the mental or physical resources required for the initial task are temporary depleted or exhausted. External recovery refers to recovery promoting actions that take place off work — e.g. in the free time between the work days, and during weekends, public holidays or vacations’ (From Recovery to Regulation: An Attempt to Reconceptualize ‘Recovery from Work’ Introduction)

Make sure to design an offline recovery system to recharge your batteries and prevent the classic freelancer burnout.

Conclusion

Being a freelancer means that a) yaay, you are your own boss and b) oh, you are your own boss. When fighting to win new clients, pitching ideas, volunteering, producing work and so on…remember that yes, your freelance business rely on the quality of what you do and the satisfaction of your clients but the quality of what you do and the satisfaction of your clients are the direct result of how you work and how you feel. I know that sometimes, working less will mean less money but the final argument against being a freelance perpetuum mobile is the fact that you chose freelancing because it excites you and you want to continue doing it and developing. Don’t take the direct train to health issues by not taking care of yourself. Increase your productivity by taking it easy.

I published a different version of this article on Impact Hub Vienna blog on 28th February 2017.  Cover photo by sharon wright on Unsplash

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