For many years, I have had the privilege of leading groups of family members, friends, colleagues, and clients to Africa. We do volunteer work for the Kenyan Children Foundation; we dig, scrub, build, teach, and--at all times--give as much love as possible to the AIDS children the Foundation serves. Every evening, no matter how late it is, our group convenes to discuss our day. This is not a vacation. This is work--expensive work! Yet year after year, people jump at the opportunity to join me.
People want to join me because of the wonderful feelings that come from helping children whom society has otherwise abandoned. There is also the excitement of visiting such a dramatically different part of the world.
Also, after our work is done and we return home, we all notice an interesting phenomenon. Our brains feel new. Our eyes see differently. It's as if the hot African sun seared away all our mental fog.
"It seems crazy to think that I had to go that far to gain perspective," says Lauren, a human resources executive at a Fortune 1000 company. "But life there is simpler. We had no TV or radio or newspapers for three weeks. Unplugging gave me such an appreciation for life. Kenya reminded me of what's important: the beauty of the earth, good food, and fellowship. By getting off the daily treadmill, I was able to get back on it with far more patience. The Serengeti gave me the gift of seeing the bigger picture. Now, in my work, I don't get so wrapped up in the day-to-day challenges that I lose sight of the greater goal. My brain built new pathways and connections, and reached new 'aha' moments that have made my decision making more clear, my life less stressful, and my heart more grateful."
When I am in Africa, I not only begin to see the "bigger picture," as Lauren says, but I also gradually get into the rhythm of "Africa time." An 8 o'clock appointment may or may not happen at 8 o'clock. When it happens, it happens. Africa time causes the structural part of my brain to eventually give up and go on a holiday. I also find that the analytical part of my brain is forced to yield to more innovative and more social thinking--so I use the opposite parts of the brain on which Western society is largely based. All these shifts make my brain more open to inspiration and new ideas.
On the treadmill of our daily lives, we are far too busy for Africa time. Blogger J.D. Gershein notes that the expression "I've been crazy busy" has become the new professional apology, and asks, "How on earth did we arrive at the crossroads of manageable busy and clinical insanity?"
The problem with being "crazy busy" is that it does not allow freewheeling thought. Think of the bright ideas you've had when you were washing your face or even sound asleep. A recent article in The New York Times titled "The 'Busy' Trap" points out: "History is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks, and no-accounts aren't responsible for more of the world's great ideas, inventions, and masterpieces than the hardworking."
Working incessantly is counterproductive. Our brains can handle only so much. A wonderful article by Sara Robinson called "Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week" notes that every workday, "odds are good that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work, and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, and so on. You can stay longer if your boss asks, but after six hours, all he's really got left is a butt in a chair."
Although corporate America has not gotten the message, there is mountains of evidence that working longer hours does not produce better work. In fact, the overworked brain begins to make mistakes, and it is possible for teams to reach a point at which they are working longer hours just to correct the errors they made from working longer hours! Dramatic examples of the consequences of brain fatigue include the Exxon Valdez disaster, the space-shuttle Challenger explosion, and numerous times when air-traffic controllers have been overtired.
So what can you do to work smarter, prevent burnout, and make sure your brain is always open to inspiration?
1. Work fewer hours.
Working the longest hours of anyone is just foolish.
2. Clarify your goals and core values.
What are you ultimately trying to accomplish? Are you spending too much time spinning your wheels on tasks that are irrelevant?
3. Track your time.
Being ruthlessly efficient allows you to block out periods of nonwork time.
4. Don't overpromise.
This is especially challenging for entrepreneurs, given that in many cases you won't get the job unless you tell the client you'll get it done in record time--for the least amount of money.
5. Say no.
Learn to walk away from jobs that will be a nightmare.
6. Hire help.
If you refuse to delegate, you end up hurting only yourself by working longer hours. You will have to learn how to not be a perfectionist and how to not be a control freak.
7. Get a life.
Make sure you have a good life outside of work and that you're not trying to escape something by working too hard.
Block out periods of time when you will let your phone take messages and let your email collect unread. It's not going anywhere.
Fortunately, you don't need to travel halfway around the world to learn how to make your life less busy and your brain more innovative. By working smarter, you'll have an opportunity for strategic thinking and planning during prime time every day, instead of squeezing your most important visionary work into late nights and weekends.