THE BLOG
06/04/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2014

The Best-Kept Secrets to Exceptional Productivity

Our culture has become one of compulsive overworking. The story of a 21-year-old Merrill Lynch employee who appears to have worked himself to death after 72 hours in the office is just one extreme example.

Most "successful" people -- whether they are start-up founders in Silicon Valley, university students, wealthy entrepreneurs, politicians, medical professionals, corporate lawyers and even social entrepreneurs and non-profiteers with a motivation to do good -- are running, rushing, pushing forward, pushing through, moving ahead, getting farther, climbing higher, creating more, innovating better, working harder for longer, harder and heavier. A "successful" person outcompetes, outperforms, surpasses. A "successful" person is running, all the time. Past the pain, past the limits towards a finishing line that is ever changing and moving. Satisfaction doesn't come or, when a goal is attained it may appear for a moment but doesn't last because the finish line keeps moving. They often work to the bone, are somewhat (or very) anxious, sacrifice their time, often their health and family, all in the name of achievement.

Research clearly shows the impacts of the stress of overworking: exhaustion, irritation, weakened digestion and immunity, an inability to disconnect from work thoughts, and a deterioration in self-control when it comes to things like food intake, an exercise regiment, proper sleep habits and alcohol consumption. But you don't need research to tell you that. Most people have experienced these things for themselves. Why? Because most people are overextended. And there's a fear that if you aren't overoing it then, God forbid, you might miss the "success" boat.

To make things worse, aside from all the mental and physical health problems that can ensue from overworking and chronic stress, research this lifestyle often doesn't work! Former Harvard Psychology professor Dan Wegner coined the term ironic processes to describe the failure of excess discipline. In particular, he showed that extreme control and focus on one goal often leads to failure or backlash much like the binge after the diet. Roy Baumeister's research shows that too much self-discipline is taxing and, over time, actually leads to willpower fatigue. According to a line of research, too much focus can actually hurt our creative problem-solving skills.

Success, achievement, wealth, power, innovation are all things to strive for. But is there a way to disrupt the current modus operandi that ironically seems to break us down as it moves us up?

Well fancy you should ask because YES, there is. Research has recently shown two unexpected ways to disrupt this pattern and it's not what you think. Here are two unexpected ways to get more done (and be happier for it!):

1. Do Nothing

For most people (and especially overachievers), the idea of "doing nothing" or stopping to smell the flowers can sound laughable and not only wildly unproductive but even completely counterproductive. Wrong! Of course, if living an extreme lifestyle is working for you, then by all means continue. However, if, like the rest of us, you long for more time to spend on things you used to love (poetry, movies, hulahooping, your family), then you're in luck because doing so may actually help you be more productive (and probably healthier too).

Think about it: When do you get moments of insight or creativity? It is in the shower, on a hike or while driving or relaxing in some other way. Things seem to fall into place and just "click" -- we have an "AHA" moment. The trick to self-mastery actually lies in the opposite of control: effortlessness, relaxation and well-being. Control is fatiguing, while brain-imaging research shows that relaxation is not only restorative, but actually leads enhanced memory and facilitated intellectual understanding. Another brain imaging study found that "AHA" moments of "sudden insight" (e.g., finding the solution to a complex program) were often preceded by enhanced alpha waves in the brain -- a sign of relaxation. UC Santa Barbara researcher Jonathan Schooler has also found that daydreaming may lead to greater creativity and enhanced problem solving. Another creativity study by Marieke showed that we are at our most creative when we are sleepy (in the evening for morning people and in the morning for night owls!) -- the reason may be that we are more relaxed in those moments. Brain imaging research by Norman Farb of the University of Toronto has determined that our brain has specific pathways dedicated to internally directed attention -- they help us become more calm, slow our racing thoughts and ultimately have greater insight into ourselves. It's important that the brain has had time to relax, restore and reflect.

A side effect of taking time for ourselves, detaching from work, and relaxing is often positive mood, which research shows also leads to greater insight and better problem solving. Another reason to play more, which research is showing benefits both health, creativity and our ability to think outside the box.

Maybe that's why everyone's meditating. It's a pretty good idea to clear your desktop, empty your trash or clear out your email but we sometimes forget to do the same thing with our mind. Research on meditation in healthy and clinical populations is growing as are evidence of its benefits (e.g. this paper) and the data (see a quick summary with links to studies here here) shows that it leads to lower stress, enhanced well-being, better cognitive skills (memory and attention) and -- in one study even improvements in multi-tasking. We understand that resting the body (i.e. sleep) is important, but often forget that it's equally important to rest the mind. It's a chance to unwind our mind and loosen up our thoughts.

2) Be Kind

A great way to stop focusing so hard and enhance your positive mood is to shift your attention from yourself and your work to others. Decades of research has shown that our connection to others in a meaningful way is crucial to our psychological and physical health and well-being (for more, see my TEDx talk)That's right, go do something nice or helpful for someone else: your family, your friends, strangers, colleagues. Go out of your way and be kind.

Share, care, donate, volunteer, listen, extend a helping hand. A large body of evidence (that I summarized for the American Psychological Society here) shows that compassion is good for your mental and physical health, you'll live longer, be happier and even have decreased inflammation at the cellular level. If that's not persuasive enough, research by Wharton's most popular professor Adam Grant has shown (in his book Give & Take -- my favorite book of 2013, which just recently came out in paperback), connection is at the heart of productivity and enhanced chances for professional success. This is your chance to socialize, help others out, feel good in the process and enhance your own success as a side effect.

Takeaways:

• When it comes to productivity, less can actually be more

• Have fun, do the things you enjoy, prioritize them as much as the other things on your to-do list, and your list will get done more efficiently

• Find time to relax, do unimportant things, unplug from work and constant focus, un-focus

• Learn to meditate

• Do kind/helpful things for others, notice the impact on yourself and your community