If you have a smartphone, and data shows you most likely do, then you have struggled with the idea of “shutting down” after work. As you sit on your couch watching the latest Netflix original series, a voice in the back of your mind tells you that instead of being lazy, you could be on your phone cleaning out your inbox or taking notes for tomorrow’s meeting.
Well, says Georgetown professor and author Cal Newport, a wide body of scientific research suggests this inability to stop working, or even the inability to do so without guilt, is harming your productivity.
If you really are dedicated to your job, then you need to learn how to be lazy, Newport writes in his new book “Deep Work,” a guide to learning how to work in periods of intense focus.
“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning — no after-dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely,” Newport writes.
There will be times, of course, when you will need to put in extra hours to finish a demanding project. In that case, Newport says, stay at your desk longer and get it done rather than taking it home with you.
When it’s time to shut down, do so with a shutdown ritual rather than just giving yourself a hard deadline and turning your computer off as soon as you hit it. Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a 2011 study in which he found that intrusive thoughts about an unfinished project are reduced or eliminated simply by devising a plan for how to eventually complete it.
Newport suggests spending at least 10 to 15 minutes at the end of each workday cataloging all of the tasks you are working on and have yet to work on, with updates on what remains and how they will be completed. He even suggests ending with a phrase that will tell your brain it’s OK to let go of work (Newport uses “Shutdown complete,” which he knows is cheesy but finds effective).
When you get home and take the time to watch a show, go for a jog, listen to a podcast, or read something unrelated to your job, you’re not just entertaining yourself; you’re giving your brain a chance to process all of the information you absorbed throughout the day.
Newport cites the work of Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, whose unconscious thought theory (UTT) states that decisions requiring adherence to rules, like solving a maths problem, require the conscious mind. Conversely, decisions dependent on large amounts of information related in a complex way, like determining which car to buy, benefit from an active unconscious mind.
Newport likens the conscious mind to a personal computer that can run processes based off programs, and he compares the unconscious mind to the way a Google search utilises a massive data center to sort through an incredibly vast stream of information.
“The implication of this line of research is that providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges,” Newport writes.
He explains how further research has shown that this rest can only happen during activities that occupy your attention just enough, without taxing it. And the activity doesn’t need to be enjoyable, either. A walk through the park on a bright, warm day is just as effective in this sense as one on a bleak, cold day.
Plus, the work you’d be fitting into your leisure time doesn’t usually turn out that great anyway, Newport says. When mentally and physically exhausted, those extra tasks will be done slowly and not as sharply as they could have been had they been set aside.
“When you work, work hard,” Newport writes. “When you’re done, be done.”
So, the next time you kick back after a long day of work and sip a beer on your couch, remind yourself that sometimes it’s good for your brain to be lazy.
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