Be Still

By: Jim Bruce

We have all heard the admonition to “be still” at various times in our lives. Usually, at least for me, it was when I was much, much younger and my mother or father or grandparents thought I was squirming too much in my chair at dinner or running around in the house, knocking into adults, or playing too rambunctiously with other kids. It was a physical thing. In her Linkage Leadership Blog post, “Be still and be a better leader,”1 Marty Jordan, takes the phrase to another level – let our brains have quiet time and space to create. 
And, this is very, very hard. Our society is always on, obsessed with all manner of activity. We take the badge of “being busy,” being in a state of constant availability particularly through our wireless devices, as something to be proud of. After all, if we are not doing something that looks and feels like work, we’re not being productive. When, for example, was the last time you sat in a comfortable chair and just read, or went for a walk in the woods, or sat on a beach and watched the waves flow in and out, or did something else, anything, just for the fun of it?
Researchers at the University of Virginia and at Harvard have found that most subjects in their study would rather be doing something, even something that hurts themselves (for example, a low level, self-administered electric shock), rather than doing nothing, or simply sitting alone with their thoughts, thinking, pondering, daydreaming.  The research protocol they followed had subjects (drawn from a broad selection of backgrounds and ranging in age from 18 to 77) sit alone for periods of six to 15 minutes. The researchers summed up their findings in a simple conclusion: “Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”2 For example, like giving themselves a mild electric shock.
Jordan notes that David Rock, in his book Your Brain at Work“describes what happens to our brains when they get overstimulated due to non-stop activity. That non-stop activity reduces the resources available to our prefrontal cortex (our thinking brain) functions such as memorizing, processing and decision making. The other problem with an overstimulated brain is we have a greater tendency to respond negatively to situations. We say and do things we later regret.”
Tony Schwartz,3 in a 2013 opinion piece in the New York Times, Relax! You’ll Be More Productive, points out that “not getting enough sleep, or not having ‘do nothing’ time, was the highest predictor of on-the-job-burnout.” He goes on to point out that it is unfortunate that most, dare I say all, of us see downtime as time wasted. More than 30% of employees eat lunch at their desks and 50% assume that they will work during part of their vacations.  While rewards often accrue for such behavior, it doesn’t mean that these employees are the most productive.
In the 1950s, researchers William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that we sleep in cycles about 90 minutes long, moving from light to deep sleep, cycle after cycle. (This is known as the Basic-Rest Activity Cycle4 or BRAC.) Kleitman later discovered that this cycle is also present when we are awake, moving us from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our brain tells us to take a break then and too often we override that signal and charge ahead, having programmed ourselves via our calendar to do that.
Schwartz3 suggests that we organize our day to take advantage of this cycle working in 90-minute blocks with short breaks in between. He has three such blocks in his day and has demonstrated that he is far more productive than before. His company, The Energy Project, fully embodies these findings in the way people work and is a laboratory for the renewal principles it teaches. “The company’s core idea is that the energy employees bring to their jobs is far more important in terms of the value of their work than is the number of hours they work. They believe that by skillfully managing energy it is possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably.”
Tim Kreider, the author of We Learn Nothing, a collection of essays and cartoons, put it this way in a 2012 Opinion Column in the New York Times, “The ‘Busy’ Trap:”5 “Idleness is not a vacation, an indulgence or a vice. It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically necessary to getting any work done.”
So, I urge you to begin the practice of being still to give your brain some downtime. Divide your morning (and your afternoon) into two major chunks with a good-sized break in between and take a real non-working lunch. This might be a very effective way for you to begin the New Year. 
To get yourself started, you might take your 2020 calendar now and for each day mark off four major blocks, say 90 minutes each, with 30-minute blocks between each of these longer blocks and at the end of the day. You can use a whole large block for your project work, for a single long meeting, or for multiple smaller ones. And use the smaller ones to get out of your chair, to refill your water bottle or get coffee/tea, take a short walk or for short conversations with people you encounter. Making these changes will be very hard, you will likely fall-off-the-wagon soon after you start. Get up and try again.
If you do this, I believe that you’ll see a significant overall energy increase, more results, and no overall loss in productivity. I challenge you to give it a try. And, do let me know how it works out.
Make it a great week for your team and for you.  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Marty Jordan, Be still and be a better leader, Linkage Leadership Insights Blog, March 18, 2015.
  2. Timothy D. Wilson, David A. Reinhard, Erin C. Westgate, Daniel T. Gilbert, Nicole Ellerbeck, Cheryl Hahn, Casey L. Brown,  Adi Shaked, Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind, Science, 2014.
  3. Tony Schwartz, Relax! You’ll Be More Productive, The New York Times, Sunday Review, February 9, 2013.
  4. Brad Buzzard, Avoid Burnout and Increase Awareness Using Ultradian Rhythms,
  5. Tim Kreider, The “Busy” Trap, The New York Times, Opinion Pages, June 30, 2012. 

Note: This essay draws on material contained in prior Tuesday Readings on the subject.

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