23 August, 2019

Forget the punishing early starts – the era of uber-ambition may be drawing to a close, as research shows creativity is best fuelled by taking it easy

For a time it seemed as if we couldn’t move for highly successful people reeling off their terrifyingly packed “typical days” in magazine profiles.

We reached peak ambition around the time former Funky Buncher turned actor, Mark Wahlberg profiled his extreme daily routine: it began at 2.30am and ended at 7.30pm and included two showers, two breakfasts, two workouts, family time, and “cryo chamber recovery”, as well as half an hour of golf at 7.30am. And this punishing schedule certainly seems to work for the guy who was the highest-paid actor of 2017, taking home a not-to-be-sniffed salary of $68 million.

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The lesson was clear: no one who wanted to get to the top of their game could do so without a 6am yoga session or a pre-work game of tennis.

But while the likes of Wahlberg and business people who wake before sunrise to meditate and drink green juice, and consider lunch “a time to refuel” (as one HSBC executive’s “day in the life profile” that went viral put it) – may thrive on early starts and packed schedules, it doesn’t suit us all.

In fact, more of us are shunning the orthodox working day as the number of people embracing self-employment and flexible working continues to rise, and companies experimenting with four day weeks report increased productivity and a happier workforce.

If you’re more into hitting the snooze button instead of the gym and prefer the pub to Powerpoint, then good news – you don’t need to adopt the puritanical habits of highly successful people to get on. Taking your foot off the throttle could be best not just for your health, but also your career.

Listen to your body clock

Despite what self-help books and preachy profiles lead us to believe, not everybody’s productivity peaks in the morning.

Circadian (which literally means “about a day”) rhythms determine when you sleep, wake and even eat. These rhythms are triggered by environmental factors such as sunlight and can be thrown out of whack by shift work and travel.

They also determine whether you’re a night owl or an early bird – so if you struggle in the morning, then it’s most likely your internal body clock is tuned that way.

If you’re self-employed you have more flexibility and can shape the day accordingly – although, again, society does somewhat limit you to a structure – so arrange your day in favour as much as possible and don’t feel compelled to follow the 9-5 model if it doesn’t work for you.

The importance of downtime

Time away from the daily grind is as important as the hours you spend in front of your laptop, not least because switching off can boost your creativity: there is science as to why we often have great ideas in the shower.

Research has found that working flat out can not only lead to stress and exhaustion, it can also create a creative block. A study published in the journal Cognition found even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve your ability to focus on it for longer periods, suggesting that prolonged attention to a single activity actually hinders performance.

And here’s why. Our brains have two modes; when we are working on a new or difficult task, or are attempting to finish that presentation, we are in focused mode. When we are relaxed – taking a coffee break, walking or daydreaming – we enter diffuse mode, the setting when the brain is at its maximum problem-solving powers.

Read more: Overloaded? Try an unstructured day of play

When you’re working on a single task – even if it is rather distractedly – you cut off access to this diffuse mode, limiting your powers to think creatively, which is why you can find yourself spending unproductive hours slogging away at a task with frustratingly few results.

Professor Kalina Christoff, lead author on a University of British Columbia study into the power of daydreaming said: “Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness.

“But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks.”

Time to walk away from that spreadsheet and lie in a field of flowers.

Rethink the working day

Britain’s long hours culture sees workers in the UK putting in the longest hours in the EU. Full-time employees in this country worked an average of 42 hours a week in 2018, almost two hours more than the typical EU employee, according to the TUC.

But despite the long hours, Britons are less productive than workers in other countries, including Germany and Denmark who work shorter days. According to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of The Florida State University, who spent more than 30 years studying how people achieve the highest levels of expertise, talented people in many different disciplines (including music, sports and writing) rarely practice more than four hours each day on average. So could less be more?

Read more: The brilliant benefits of a four-day week

Successful people in history have certainly not followed Wahlberg’s model – Charles Dickens, for example, used to write between 9am and 2pm before spending the rest of the day taking long walks around London, while Winston Churchill rarely rose before 11am, preferring to catch up on his correspondence over a big breakfast in bed.

And rather than setting us free, technology has tied us to our metaphorical desks 24/7 – unlike back in Dickens’ day, there is nowhere we are out of reach. But rather than making us more efficient, being ‘on’ constantly could actually be hindering our productivity.

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, switched its 240 staff from a five-day to a four-day week in November 2018 and maintained their pay. The firm claimed it resulted in a 20% rise in productivity, appeared to have helped increase profits and improved staff wellbeing.

Glasgow-based marketing firm Pursuit Marketing switched to a four-day week in 2016 and found productivity increased by about 30% and sick leave is at an all-time low.

Sleep is even better than green juice

Sleep is vital for maintaining good health and brain cognitively. It’s your body’s reset button, helping you recover from mental as well as physical exertion and improving your ability to learn, make decisions and concentrate. If you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble solving problems, controlling your emotions and behaviour, and coping with change.

There are people who rise effortlessly at 5am, who do their best work before the rest of the world wakes up. But setting your alarm for 5am in the belief you’ll get more done just because you’re up early may only leave you tired and grumpy if you’re not naturally a morning person and you have no established routine.

Rising pre-dawn could also leave you sleep deprived if you’re not going to bed early enough and you may find you have peaked before your first meeting and are nodding off by 11am. Not to mention the fact that ongoing sleep deficiency can raise your risk for some chronic health problems.

Listen to your body as much as daily life allows and don’t punish yourself if you’re not naturally an early riser, if you don’t spend your mornings answering emails and your evenings planning presentations. To be the best you can be – switch off, lie-in – and keep dreaming.

Images: Shutterstock,  Vu Thu Giang, Claudia Mañas, Elijah Hail, Kenny Luo on Unsplash

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