Productivity: Think less. Accomplish more.

Welcome to Week Three of creating your own Peak Productivity Pyramid. If you missed the first two, please read the one on Physical Capacity and the one of Emotional Capacity.

The next level of the pyramid (after physical and emotional capacity) is cognitive capacity, and it’s no mystery that this is the part that academics love to give all their attention to. Almost every question I get around productivity as a coach is about how to “do more”:  How can I achieve better time management? How can I improve efficiency to accomplish more? And because academics are in the business of thinking, they are basically asking, how do I manage time to be able to think more?

Here’s the thing. The way that we build cognitive capacity is not to think more. The key to more cognitive capacity is… less thinking.

A little counter intuitive, right?

But: how many great ideas have you had while you were super stressed? 

By contrast, how many great ideas have you had while you were in the shower, or driving in the car, or on a walk?

Like I said:  You want to build cognitive capacity? Think less.

Which brings us back to the oscillation concept that I mentioned in the first installment of this series.

Tony Schwartz, whose work I am referencing, worked with Jim Loehr in part because of Loehr’s research with high performance athletes. Loehr understood that for an athlete to reach peak performance required “the rhythmic movement between energy expenditure (stress) and energy renewal (recovery).” Push just to the limit and then rest. Run as hard as possible, then sit in a recovery bath or get a massage. Work with focus and then rest just as intently.

Because academics are always looking for peak performance at the cognitive level, oscillation in their case is achieved by alternating between periods of intellectual production and periods of renewal. Renewal in this case, though, means dipping into the emotional and physical capacities that we talked about before, and taking a break.

Think of Serena Williams, arguably the greatest athlete of our time. Are you familiar with her ritual between serves? The breaths. The ball bouncing. The stare across the net. Every single serve she goes through the same process. The ritual quiets her mind, and then… BAM!  Baseball players have rituals too when they’re coming up to bat — wiping their hand on their chest, tugging at their cap, pulling at their crotch… you get the picture. And you probably have some version of the calming ritual before you teach or give a talk.

What I’m asking now is that you make this a conscious part of your work: Create rituals to disconnect from the stress so you can come back fully present to the work at hand.

When I was at the University, I had the “nag” app on my computer. It dinged at 10 minutes before the hour. No matter what I was doing (other than a meeting of course) I would get up and walk around the building — you know, walked up and down stairs, talked to actual live people, got a drink of water, and then I came back to work. 

What’s your ritual before you serve again? A couple of yoga stretches in your office, changing work spaces, a walk around the block, chopping vegetables for your lunch? 

Whatever it is, leave the thinking behind for awhile and know that you’re building cognitive capacity.  

Next week we wrap up with Spiritual Capacity. Don’t worry. There is no religion required.

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