Why it’s time you put the “push through” mindset away.
If you are one of those people who can get focused quickly and maintain concentration even while distractions are competing for your attention, this article may not be for you.
If you are great at proactively scheduling breaks into your calendar and taking those breaks throughout the day, keep doing what you’re doing.
If on the other hand, you find your legs going numb from sitting too long, your eyes crossing from staring at your screen and you’ve moved your coffee maker onto your desk to save getting up throughout the day, and still find yourself exhausted and somehow further behind on your most crucial work, then this article is definitely for you.
Before COVID-19, the research arm of my company, BrainAMPED, uncovered some interesting data. We found that leaders who proactively build breaks into their day (and took them), self-assessed themselves as being more focused throughout the day, less tired at the end of the workday, and in the case of having a partner at home, felt more present with them outside of work hours.
None of that was surprising. The data on working in 90-minutes cycles followed by a break is well documented. What was most surprising was that the difference between leaders who were scored as being “good” and those being “great” by their manager, direct reports, and their partners at home, wasn’t dependent on the quantity or length of breaks. Instead, it was much more connected to the quality of the breaks taken throughout the day.
Our research shows that high quality breaks consistently have five key elements. I’ve organized them into an easy to remember mnemonic, we call them P.O.W.E.R. breaks. These are short (typically 15 minutes at the low end and an hour at the high end), reset breaks taken throughout the workday.
Let’s look at the key elements of a P.O.W.E.R. break:
P: Proactive Pause
By far, the biggest difference between those that took breaks throughout the day and those who didn’t was if they proactively scheduled them and diligently worked to keep them free, even when a request came in that would overlap.
When asked why people don’t take breaks throughout the day, even when they knew they are helpful, the most consistent answer was, “because I was too busy.” This is all a matter of brain science. The longer you work, the less time it will feel like you have to take a break. This is because your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), the part of your brain that helps you keep things in perspective, fatigues when constantly engaged – and is less able to recognize when a break would be most beneficial.
The second key piece is that it is a “Pause.” This means you “pause” doing work. If you schedule a 15-minute break following two meetings and you fill that time checking email, you have proactively scheduled a work execution break – not a pause break. The goal is to give that hard-working PFC a break allowing it to function best and therefore serve you best.
This element is about consciously slowing and deepening your breath to oxygenate your brain and body. If you’ve worked with me before, you know that “Oxygenate” is a part of many strategies.
The reason for this is simple – it is necessary. For many of you, much of the day feels fast-paced, pressure-filled and demanding. This stress kicks in the ‘fight-flight’ system resulting in quick, shallow breathing.
Slowing down and deepening your breath activates your vagus nerve. This nerve bundle is critical to turning off the ‘flight-flight’ stress response system. It instead, activates the relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.
To build this into your reset break, take a minute or two and just focus on taking some slow breaths. When done throughout the day people report lower frequency of headaches, less muscle tension and more energy.
As counter-intuitive as this sounds, one of the biggest contributors to dehydration is immobility. When you are sitting most of the day away, water delivery to the cells is slowed which in turn decreases the flow of waste particles out of those cells – dehydrating the system and increasing the feeling of fatigue.
This is often further exacerbated by attempting to get that ‘second wind’ by replacing a glass of water with a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to further dehydrate you.
But it’s not just that you feel tired. Because your brain functions via electrical impulses between synapses, the brain requires water to serve as the conduit. When you are dehydrated the connection between these synapses slows down impacting on your ability to concentrate and think in a nimble way.
Simply adding in more water throughout the day will have a huge impact on energy, focus and attention.
If your initial reaction is, “I don’t have time to exercise three times a day!” rest assured, I am not suggesting that. In the context of a P.O.W.E.R. break, think of exercise as simply standing up and extending your limbs.
However, if you want to amplify the impact of your breaks, add in some actual exercise that will increase your heart rate such as brisk walk. There is a reason people often say “I’m going for a walk to clear my head.” It is because the brain is optimized when we move our bodies. Focus on adding additional movement to your day, especially if you attend a lot of virtual meetings (because you don’t even need to walk to those ones!).
Now that you’ve taken some breaths, sipped some water, disengaged from your work and moved your body, now it’s time to get back to work. Before diving back in, use that now rested PFC to re-evaluate your approach, where you are putting your time, and how you are using your energy.
This can be done by asking some simple questions such as, is this a priority? Would a phone call be a better option? Who should I engage in this decision or communicate my decision to?
Who hasn’t finished a day and thought to themselves, where did the day go? What did I accomplish today?
When busy, most people become reactive. They end up prioritizing answer emails and focusing on low value, easy-to-complete tasks. This is inevitably at the cost of high-impact work. A rested brain will question your choices, a tired brain will not.
The P.O.W.E.R. break strategy is simple, executing on it may not be easy. Your day will fill up and it will feel like you don’t have time. Remember, these are exactly the times you need a break the most.
How simple, research-backed shifts to the order of your evening could change that for good!
8:00 am: Get to work – Too tired to think.
1:00 pm: Go to a meeting – Too tired to think.
6:00 pm: Make dinner – Too tired to think.
11:00 pm: Go to bed – How do dragons blow out candles?
Sound familiar? This was a post a friend sent me a few months ago with the comment, “Why does this have to be so true?!” Variations of this made the rounds of social media sites simply because it reflects the frustrating reality that so many people deal with when it comes to falling asleep.
It turns out that just because you’ve decided it’s time to sleep, doesn’t mean your brain or body are on the same schedule!
If this is something that affects you, you’re not alone. Studies spanning the last two decades have indicated a steady rise in people, particularly women, having a harder time falling asleep.
This sentiment is shared by many of the clients that come to my company to help them raise their Leadership Vitality Quotient (LVQ). Inevitably, the discussion of sleep and the impact it has on their performance, leadership, and life satisfaction always comes up.
Clients will often say that because of things such as shift work, family commitments, client commitments, or early morning commutes, going to bed earlier or getting up later isn’t an option. This makes falling asleep quickly a priority. Unfortunately for many of us, this just isn’t happening.
While numerous things may delay the onset of sleep, one factor that is undeniably having an impact is our tendency to push all day long in this hyper-driven go-mode. By aiming to squeeze in as much as possible during the day, many people have inadvertently left little time to transition out of driven go-mode and into slowing sleep-mode.
As Shawn Stevenson shares in his awesome book, Sleep Smarter:
“We get ready for everything. We need to shift our mindset around sleep from something we do to something we get ready to do.”
If you’re thinking, “I’m already too busy, I won’t have time for this,” fear not! It’s not about adding to your day; it is about changing the order of your evening.
With a few small, but intentional adjustments to your evening activities, you can establish a wind-down routine that helps you to both relax, as well as craft the necessary transitionary time to make falling asleep easier.
A simple method that I have been using with clients as well as personally is what I call the 3-2-1 Sleep ‘E’ Routine. The goal of the approach is to create congruence between your desire to sleep and your brain and body’s readiness to sleep. The shift of your evening activities goes like this:
- 3 hours before bed – Limit Eating and Exercise
- 2 hours before bed – Limit Emailing
- 1 hour before bed – Limit Electronics
What does this look like in real life? Let’s say you plan to be in z-land by 10:00 pm, this is how your routine would look.
3 Hours Before Bed (7:00 pm). Wind down exercise and eating.
Starting with exercise, this time allotment allows your elevated heart rate and core temperature, as well as all that energizing adrenaline-driven by your sympathetic nervous system, adequate time to decrease naturally.
There is an abundance of well-researched data that shows exercising early in the morning increases the amount of deep sleep you get the following evening. It is during ‘deep sleep’ that the body repairs itself, and your brain cleans itself up, both of which leave you feeling more rested without sleeping more hours.
If the later evening is the only time you can exercise, consider swapping out your high-energy Spin Class for Yoga. Slower, stretch focused exercise is widely used to calm your mind and body. To fully feel the benefits, incorporate breathing exercises and meditations. Both of which are proven to be powerful sleep-priming enhancers.
Next is eating, especially heavy meals. Your body requires time to metabolize, and getting the majority of this done before bed not only results in a night of much better sleep but also decreases the chance of heartburn and indigestion. Unfortunately after the age of 30, often increases when you lay down following a big meal.
Besides, I can’t be the only one that has the strangest and most vivid dreams when I go to bed with a full stomach!
If a nice warm decaffeinated tea relaxes you into the nighttime mode, try to finish this up within an hour of going to sleep. The later these are consumed, the higher the chance of a required middle-of-the-night bathroom break interrupting your sleep. Not to mention, the more times you wake up, the more often you need to fall back to sleep!
2 Hours Before Bed (8:00 pm). Wind down the work emails.
One of the best ways to help your brain disengage from workplace worries is to have a preset, designated time to stop working. The benefit of having this routine is that it signals to your brain that it can stop working, worrying, and thinking.
But it isn’t just about email; it is about all work. However, a survey I conducted in 2019 revealed that most of the work people do in the evenings involve checking and replying to emails. Nearly 30% of the respondents commented that they rarely work before bed – they keep an eye on email. That is called WORKING!
Even if you disagree with what counts as work, research shows that constantly scanning your email signals to your brain that it needs to function in crisis mode, needing to stay on high-alert for any potential threats (even if there aren’t any). Threat mode and sleep mode are not good bed buddies!
Let’s break this down. Everyone knows that email can be triggering. Who hasn’t gotten a late-night crummy email from a colleague or customer? Even if you’re able to manage your fight-flight system and resist firing back an email, your brain stays hooked long after the email is read. To cope, you usually take one of two approaches. Either you try not to think about it, or you overthink it. Unfortunately, both approaches result in excessive cortisol being dumped into your system making sleep, especially falling asleep, much more difficult.
This constant partial attention not only increases stress and overwhelm, but it also impacts your connection with those most important to you. When you are accessible via email 24/7, it means we are inaccessible to the people around you 24/7. Physical connection via talking and spending time with those you love is both more fulfilling and relaxing, easing you into a healthier nighttime routine.
1 Hour Before Bed (9:00 pm). Wind down electronics.
Now is when you want to start to minimize electronics.
Even with the hour before sleep being potentially the most important block of time, many people take a haphazard approach to calming themselves both psychologically and physiologically during this time.
For most of my clients, decreasing screen time before bed is the hardest adjustment to make, but don’t try to trick yourself into believing that reading the day’s news or political headlines won’t have an impact on your sleep – it absolutely does.
Just like the work email, news, and other social media all have the potential to trigger the emotional neural networks in your brain and prompting the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. When we have more cortisol, then melatonin (that sleep-inducing hormone) in our system, it chemically communicates to our brain and body to wake-up and take action, counter to your sleep goal!
In this final hour, helping your brain to disconnect from the day and settle down should be a priority. Spend this time relaxing with family, reading a good fiction novel, listening to an audiobook or Podcast, or doing some reflective journaling. It is critical to understand that the thinking brain fatigues, and the constant stimulation of scrolling social media tends to overstimulate the brain, essentially making it over-tired and unable to calm down and settle into sleep.
Before deciding what will or won’t work for you, test and tweak each step to suit you best. The calming power in routines comes from the replication of them. It takes time to get your brain, body, and behaviors on a new schedule.
The 3-2-1 Sleep Ease Routine works with your brain and body’s natural processes so that when the light goes off, sleep is not far behind!