THE INC. LIFE

According to Science, This is How You Can Be Extremely Productive Without Burning Out

As it turns out, you can now work really hard and be highly productive, but without ruining your health in the process.

Share on
BY Marcel Schwantes - 13 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Raise your hand if you'd like to be more productive during the day? That should be a good number of you. Now raise your hand if you' like to be more productive every day without experiencing burnout or exhaustion. I'm thinking that's about everyone with a pulse!

Enter Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, co-authors of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive With the New Science of Success.

Magness, a coach of top runners, and Stulberg, an expert on the science of human performance, combined forces to introduce concepts so simple and useful -- something so available to all of us every day -- I actually felt sheepish writing about it since I'm guilty of not doing enough of these myself. In fact, most of us rarely think about how important it is for our well-being and productivity.

What's the big idea? The authors conclude that rest is key to top performance.

While that may not sound so revolutionary, it is refreshing news for open-minded people whose sole mindset for productivity is to push themselves harder and harder to achieve more and more. If that's you, say the authors, you're only getting half of the equation right.

The equation for the ultimate success

In an interview with Science of Us, Stulberg and Magness talk about the equation of stress + rest = growth, which has its origin in sports, but can be applied in any area of life.

When you achieve the right balance of that equation-- pushing yourself through hard work with the rest and recovery you need for that hard work to absorb -- you can improve on whatever it is you're doing. Without the whole equation, says Magness, you don't get growth, adaptation or learning unless the rest and recovery part is activated daily.

Magness says people have bought on to the myth that if you work really hard, that's what's going to take you to the top. Using the illustration of an athlete in training, he says, "If I go into a weight room and I lift or I go and do a really hard workout on the track, during that workout my body is breaking down. I'm getting worse."

He adds, "The body doesn't adapt and grow and make the muscles grow stronger and bigger until we step away and give it time to repair and adapt." In other words, what most workaholics don't want to hear: more rest.

The need for more sleep

That translates to the need for more sleep as well, which, for some people, isn't a choice for better health because it means cutting into getting more done. Here's Magness:

"If you look at sleep, for example, that's the time when we get all these growth hormones that start that repair process going. You're getting better the longer you sleep. The same thing happens with learning and even emotional development. What researchers have found is that when we sleep we process basically everything we learned. We clear out the stuff that doesn't really matter, that we don't need that much. And these memories, these learnings, we really deeply ingrain these. I think we have to reconceptualize sleep as part of the work."

Maybe so, but this lifestyle change is a tall order for some, including our current president. During the campaign last year, The New York Times even suggested that Donald Trump's notorious (and presidentially-dangerous) 4-hour sleep habit may be to blame for his erratic, offensive, and downright idiotic behavior.

In his op-ed, Timothy Egan writes, "[Trump] shows all the scary symptoms of sleep deprivation. His judgment is off, and almost always ill informed. He has trouble processing basic information. He imagines things. He shows a lack of concentration."

He continues, "When I see his puffy eyes and face, I don't see a man who will carefully weigh all the facts and consequences of an action that could affect everyone on the planet. I see an impulsive, vainly insecure person who cannot shut his mind down for a night."

Add interval rest to sleep, and you're on your way

Magness tells Science of Us that in addition to 7 or 8 hours of horizontal bliss, taking smart breaks during your workday, and having longer periods of downtime, are keys to being more productive. He expands further:

Rest isn't just sleep or sitting around and being lazy. The reality is that stepping away and shifting your focus, whether that's physical workload or mental workload, allows your brain and your body to take a slight step back and to get away from always working hard, always pushing forward. If we can just step back and just give ourselves five minutes, ten minutes every hour or, on a bigger macro level, take a vacation or step away on the weekends, what it does is it allows our really hard stressful periods to be more productive.

In their research, Stulberg and Magness found plenty of evidence that adopting an interval-based approach to productivity isn't just for jocks in the gym or on the track; it can transform the workplace as well.

The Draugiem Group, an international social-networking company, discovered that its star employees preferred a work routine where "they spent, on average, 52 minutes engrossed in their work, took a 17-minute break, and then returned to their work," says Stulberg.

In fact, the employees with the highest productivity ratings don't even work eight-hour days. Tech writer Julia Gifford documented the study while working for The Draugiem Group. She wrote in The Muse,

Turns out, the secret to retaining the highest level of productivity over the span of a workday is not working longer--but working smarter with frequent breaks. The reason the most productive 10 percent...get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.

What's the best rest and recovery technique?

Being a track coach, Magness has extensive experience with teaching athletes to recover from hard training and workout sessions. What he has found works best transfers terrifically well to the workplace. Here's Magness:

In the world of athletics we obsess over recovery like, 'okay, we just worked really hard, do we jump in an ice bath or put on compression clothes or drink our protein shake? What do we do?' And what I implemented, and the research is starting to show, is the most overpowering one is that social impact. Once we stop a workout, it's not about running off to jump into our ice bath. It's about me setting things up so that the athletes have 20, 30 minutes where they're just hanging out together, shooting the shit and decompressing with each other. From a work standpoint, most people go from finishing work and it's straight into the car or straight onto the train and into their own world. That's not helpful. You have to have this transition, and that's what social recovery, hanging out with friends after work, provides -- this decompression and transition phase to go from high stress to allowing your body to rest. If you don't have that, if you jump on the train without any social activity, what happens is that high cortisol level, those high stress loads, that slight anxiety, it'll just stay there and be under the current while you're driving home. And that's why a lot of people get in that grind and they'll do the same thing: Go home, flip on the TV or scroll through Twitter and not actually give themselves a chance to come down off that stress.

Bottom line

The equation of stress + rest = growth, in a nonathletic, everyday context, could be a game changer for the average person. Stulberg brings it home: "Growth for a nonathlete is working toward one's full potential in expressing your best self and feeling good about it--. to know that you're pushing in a direction that is fulfilling, makes you feel good, and makes you feel like you're working at your best."