Busy, busy, busy. You may have followed all the self-help productivity tips out there, but life can still feel like a freefall into more and more work in less and less time. Fair enough, you’re productive – but is it making you happy? Maybe you’re too perpetually distracted to say one way or the other? Could taking one science-backed step per day for a week help you to take back control of your life and focus on the work goals that really matter to you? There’s one way to find out – follow the RISING diary and come Sunday, you may be no less busy, but you might just feel more fulfilled…
MONDAY: Start A 5-Minute Journal
The first step to wrestling back control of your busy life is to become more self-aware. Our monkey brains have evolved to deal with what’s right in front of us, and then move on, encouraging the ‘treadmill’ approach to work. Taking even five minutes a day to jot down a summary of what has happened and how you feel about it can have massive stress-fighting benefits, especially if you’re pissed off about something – it also creates a record that can’t be ‘fudged’ by wishful mis-remembering later on. Professor James Pennebaker, co-author of Opening Up By Writing It Down, has even found that suppressing negative thoughts by not expressing them can compromise your immune system, potentially turning stress into physical illness.
‘Daydreaming allows us to run future simulations and select the optimal course of action’
TUESDAY: Log Into Your Brain’s Default Network
It’s Tuesday, famed as the most productive day of the week, so you’re probably already spending a couple of hours of it with all notifications switched off to crack that project work – fine. But make sure you work an opportunity into your day to enter your brain’s ‘third state’, the default network. According to business psychologist Tony Crabbe this is our essential intellectual digestive system – the engine of our ideas, basically. You don’t need to be cross-legged on a yoga mat for this – simply walking or driving without the radio on or earphones in will allow your mind to wander. And a study by Paul Seli, a psychologist at Harvard University, found that people who intentionally let their minds wander were less likely to daydream unintentionally.
Before you wander off into random thoughts of skydiving Ewoks, know that it does matter what you daydream about. Another study by psychologist Jonathan Smallwood at the University of York found that self-generated thought allows us to run future simulations, ‘select the optimal course of action, prepare for upcoming events, and achieve our upcoming goals.’ Of course, mind-wandering through past disappointments won’t allow this…
WEDNESDAY: Blow Off Some Steam
It’s ‘hump day’ which means that stress levels may have pummelled you into a lifeless lump of disaffected humanity. Don’t be a lump, blow off some steam! But rather than wailing on the office watercooler like a ‘heavy bag’, get some exercise. The latest research into modern living says the constant bad diets, pollution and short-term stresses (you know, the 9-5 kind) release noradrenaline, setting off the same physical inflammatory response as illness or injury.
Because the threat never really disappears, we are walking around in what Nicolas Rohleder of Brandeis University in Massachusetts calls ‘chronic low-grade inflammation’. His studies link this to heart disease, fatigue, depression and strokes. Fortunately there’s a fix, according to Professor Mark Febbraio of the Garvan Institute, Australia. ‘We discovered that a cytokine, namely interleukin-6, which is normally associated with inflammation and the immune system, was released from skeletal muscle [during exercise],’ he says. ‘We showed that it signalled the liver to increase its production of glucose so that the contracting muscle could use it as a fuel source.’ Through exercise your muscles actively fight stress-induced inflammation – so use them!
‘Being exceptionally mindful slows down the passage of time’
THURSDAY: Stay Focused – Stretch Your ‘Now’
When you’re fatigued it can be hard to stay focused in the moment and give a challenge your full attention, which is exactly when you also start to feel overwhelmed at work, leaving zero energy for personal goals at the end of the day. Fortunately science has a mind-bending solution. Our senses react to the outside world in milliseconds, but our brains takes time to build this into an experienced ‘moment’ creating a reality time lag. A 2017 study by David Melcher at the University of Trento, which showed people mashed-up film clips, found a sweet spot of about 2.5 seconds over which our brains could re-assemble a single perceived ‘now’ from lots of inputs. After that time most of us hit our ‘buffer’ of processing power.
So far, so sciencey – but things get interesting when you look at how meditation and mindfulness can affect your perception of time and ability to form memories, potentially increasing your buffer. Psychologist Marc Wittmann has studied experienced meditators in the lab. ‘Because the feeling of time is created through attending to the embodied self at the present moment, being exceptionally mindful slows down the passage of time. Subjective time slows down in retrospect because greater awareness of one’s experiences leads to enriched memory contents,’ he says. So, by being more mindful or meditating, you could stretch time in your next board meeting, just when you need it.
FRIDAY: Get In Touch With Your Future Self
Being busy is like zooming in on Google Earth – you start by being able to see the whole world, but end up focusing on a few pixels on the ground. But leading a purposeful life relies on being able to imagine your future self and the steps you need to take to get there. Studies have suggested that thinking about our future selves activates the same part of our brain we use to think about other people.
A study by the University of California created digital avatars of volunteers and aged them with VR. ‘Participants who were exposed to their future selves in virtual reality allocated more than twice as much money toward their retirement account than participants who were exposed to their current selves.’ So, visualise who you want to be in the future and you’re likely to make more purposeful decisions.
SATURDAY: Banish Monkey Economics From Your Finances
The human errors when it comes to money are predictable and repeatable – we’re really bad at evaluating relative risk. This means that although we’re normally risk-averse, when we’re faced with losing something, we tend to take a bigger risk to avoid a smaller loss – like stockbrokers holding on to plummeting shares for too long.
When psychologist Laurie Santos taught capuchin monkeys to use money, exactly the same thing occurred – in fact the monkey data was statistically indistinguishable from most stockmarket investors – suggesting that 35 million years of evolution have hardwired us with monkey dunce economics. So, bear this in mind when reviewing your finances – your instincts are probably off…
SUNDAY: Crack Open A Beer
If your Sunday is much like every other super-productive day then maybe you need a break? The most important step in taking back control is being able to do just that – stop.
WHAT NEXT? Stuck for ideas? Check out Adam Grant’s TED Talk on original thinkers who not only dream up ideas but also put them into effect.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.