If you just started working out you may be tempted to push your body to the limits. The problem isn't how hard your training. It's that you're still partaking in unhealthy habits, like poor diet and not getting enough sleep, as well as not giving yourself enough recovery time.
Like any other muscle in your body, the same can be said about our brains.
As an entrepreneur, I work my tails off for 10, 12, or more hours every day. Then I come home and do some additional work. I then respond to to email and social messages on my smartphone or tablet right before bed. I'm not over-worked right?
Next I watch the news or an episode of my favorite show. I get a couple of hours of sleep, rinse, and repeat.
This is what living is like in the information age. In fact, we now receive five times as much information every day as we did in 1986.
No wonder we suffer from anxiety and stress! It's even been estimated that 40 million adults in the U.S. alone are affected by an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is also the most common mental illness in the country.
It's Evolution, Baby
Here's the thing. The human brain wasn't meant to run a marathon. It's not designed to be alert and stimulated for a majority of the day.
Think about how humans lived millions of years ago. We moved at a slower pace that pretty much only involved hunting and gathering. This slower life style left a lot of time for the brain and body to relax and recharge.
Those earlier people were also in rhythm with the sun and nature - this probably helped them follow their circadian rhythm.
Today, we're hustling almost 24/7. Between work and family obligations and being plugged in constantly, it's no wonder there's a sleep epidemic here in the states.
Give Your Brain a Break
Getting enough sleep helps keep us focused, productive, and healthy. But, that's only the tip of the iceberg. "I think we have discovered why we sleep," said Maiken Nedergaard. She leads a study at the University of Rochester. "We sleep to clean our brains."
Nedergaard and her team found that the space between brain cells increased by 60% in mice. This allowed the cerebrospinal fluid in the animals' brains to flow ten times faster than when awake.
On top of getting enough sleep at night, you need to unplug throughout the day because the brain can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes.
It's all thank to the ultradian rhythm, which is a cycle that is present in our sleeping and waking lives.
There's even a well-known study of the world's most prodigious violinists. The study that found similar characteristics to the Nedergaard mice study were present when it comes to music practice.
These violinists practiced in three sessions, each was 90 minutes, and there was a break build into each session.
Businesses in Silicon Valley have also caught-on to this "better performance," concept in business. They are putting into practice this same approach.
Taking the traditional 8-hours workday and infusing it with more flexible working hours and encouraging employees to switch tasks every 90 minutes or so. Time will tell the outcome.
If you want to increase how to think creatively and strategically so that you handle more complex problems, then you need to take a break.
It also reduces stress, which is good for both your brain's performance and overall health.
Incorporating Brain Breaks
I know what you're thinking. You don't have the time to take a brain break. For the sake of your career, and more importantly your well-being, you need to start giving your brain a break.
Thankfully, there are several simple hacks that you can implement into your daily routine that can accomplish just that.
Take a Vacation
While incorporating brain breaks throughout the day and getting a good night's sleep are a start, you also can't neglect the fact that you need even more time off when you're brain has been moving faster than normal.
"Some years we didn't take breaks. We didn't do the vacation bit. And in every one of those years, we not only worked harder, but earned less," writes Sean D'Souza for PsychoTactics.
"How is this possible? It's simple to explain. If you have a vacation coming up, or even a weekend break, you work more efficiently. You get seven days work done in five days.
"If you have no break you're less efficient, chomping up seven days for seven days work."
"And at the end of seven days, you're tired and the next week starts a lot slower than if you're relaxed and re-charged," concludes D'Souza.
Jack Zenger, CEO of leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, found similar results. "In a dataset of 2,310 respondents, we looked at data from the 20 countries with the most paid vacation days (247 respondents) and compared them to respondents in the United States (1,151)." Zenger writes for HBR.
He states, "The 20 countries with the most vacation ranged from Australia, with 28 days allotted, to Sweden and Brazil, with 41 days.
"By contrast, the United States has no law requiring paid time off, and the average full-time worker with a year of service gets 10 paid vacation days (and only 25% of Americans take their full allotment, according to another survey)."
While more vacation time didn't reduce stress. 26% of those with the most vacation felt overwhelmed, compared with 23% of Americans. Yet the study found there was greater productivity.
However, Zenger adds "it's not that taking a break will refresh your brain and let you get more done; it's that simply spending less time at your desk forces you to waste less time."
Even if there's some truth to Zenger's hypothesis, study after study has found that because our brains have limited attention, they need a break.
If you keep overloading your brain and don't take a breather, there are serious side-effects besides workplace performance.
So kick your pride to the curb and take some time off. Your brain deserves, and needs, it!