There's something to be said about the energizing hum that comes along with doing, succeeding, producing. But a peculiar phenomenon tends to happen when we force ourselves to work incessantly, to buzz like a bumblebee from thing to thing in the constant quest for "enough". That hum, as so eloquently described by self-described TV titan Shonda Rhimes, stops. Our minds, so full and overwhelmed, protest in the worst of ways, and our productivity tanks. And in that moment, if we want to move forward without sinking into burnout, quieting our minds, becomes Priority #1.
1. Do a workout.
But not just any workout. Do High Intensity Interval Training (HiiT). These exercise sessions involve alternating bursts of give-it-your-all movements with less demanding active recovery. Most HiiT routines are cardio based and don't require any equipment, but you can throw in some compound strength exercises to keep things interesting and stay efficient, too.
Research suggests that, because of the incredible physical demands HiiT places on the body, it might help some people force themselves into a quieter state of mind. Karen Postal, an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and the president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, explains, "When you have high exertion -- meaning you are running flat-out in a race -- you're not going to be able to solve problems or think as well as when you are engaged in moderate exercise...You're actually working on less available oxygen in your brain." You'll still be able to do routine, rote jobs just fine, maybe even better than before your session, but unless you're really fit, you'll be cognitively too tired to ruminate and worry. You might not be able to fit this strategy into a crazy day at the office, but if exercise doesn't seem to rev you up in general, it might be something to try in the evenings so your thoughts aren't racing as you try to get some shuteye.
2. Pay attention to your breathing.
More specifically, try to slow the pace of your breathing down and ensure that your exhalations last longer than your inhalations. This technique activates your parasympathetic nervous system, basically telling your brain, "Hey! Everything's okay! You can take a break right now!" Combining this strategy with some aromatherapy--for example, getting in a few whiffs of lavender essential oil--might up your results, as aromatherapy sends the same message.
3. Do some sensory play.
Scientists now know that it's possible to regulate how aroused you are through your five main senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch), as well as your vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (body awareness) systems. Techniques like sucking on hard candy (yum!), dimming the lights, sitting under a weighted blanket, listening to quiet music with a slower beat or gentle swaying on your office exercise ball all can help.
4. Set your schedule to 90-minute intervals.
You might be aware of your circadian rhythm, which controls your daily sleep-wake pattern. But you also have what's known as the ultradian rhythm. Many people know this rhythm through the cycles they go through when sleeping, but as Nathaniel Kleitman demonstrated, the cycles are present even when you are awake, too.
Generally, people complete an ultradian cycle once every 90 to 120 minutes, moving back and forth between periods of high alertness (higher frequency brain waves) to lower alertness (rest, lower frequency brain waves). It's during the second part of this cycle that your brain recharges. If you try to plow through this rest period--say, by jolting yourself with caffeine or noshing on those leftover donuts in the break room--you activate your body's fight-or-flight stress response. Your productivity can go out the window as a result, because that response shuts down your prefrontal cortex, making it harder to think. By tuning in to your ultradian cycle and using tools like apps to remind you to take regular breaks, you avoid this shutdown. You come back to your projects with more energy and focus and, subsequently, have a greater potential to get more done in less time. With more crossed off your to-do list, you'll have fewer issues demanding your mental energy later.
5. Unplug and retreat.
Lights, honking car horns, pings from your smartphone or chat client--they all stimulate your brain, which has to process everything you're bombarded with. Additionally, the brain can get addicted to the dopamine reward we get when we complete small, repetitive tasks, such as checking texts. The easiest ways to get out of this rut are just to turn off as many sources of distraction as you can and to set up shop in a room where less is going on.
The cultural mindset in America tends to be that constant work is positive, and that breaks represent laziness. But science disagrees. Quieting your mind actually is beneficial for both your general health and productivity. For your job and well-being, make these tips a regular part of your daily living.