Work Hard, Relax Hard

How to recharge at the end of the day for better focus tomorrow

How do you like to recharge after a long day of work?

Maybe you go the gym or for a walk, meet up friends for drinks, spend time with your family, work on another hobby, watch TV — or some combination of relaxing activities.

If, however, you find yourself squeezing in work tasks to try and get a head start on the next day, you may actually be hurting your ability to focus and do your best work.

Being able to completely shut down any thoughts about work at the end of a workday is crucial to recharging the energy you need to do focused work, argues Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work.

Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work.

When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

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Photo by Tim Gouw

Newport references studies on Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which is based on the concept of attention fatigue. To concentrate requires what ART calls directed attention. This resource is finite: if you exhaust it, you’ll struggle to concentrate.

ART explains how spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. A 2008 study, among others on the topic, shows how walking busy city streets requires people to use directed attention, to navigate around large groups of tourists or try to avoid getting hit by a car.

When walking through nature, by contrast, there are less challenges to be navigated, and therefore less need for directed attention. The “inherently fascinating stimuli” in nature is enough to keep your mind sufficiently occupied without needing to focus. This state allows your directed attention resources time to replenish.

Beyond getting out in nature, any relaxing activity that gives your brain a break from directed concentration can also allow your stores of focused attention to replenish.

This could be as simple as having a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game, or going for a run. All of these activities give you a chance to recharge your attention stores and ability to focus, and are ideal for downtime.

However, interrupting this downtime to check email or squeeze in a work task prevents you from reaching the deep relaxation needed for attention restoration to occur. This means that you might actually get less done the next day, since your directed attention stores are are still depleted.

Think of it like getting a good night’s sleep. If you sleep without interruption for 8 hours, you will likely wake up feeling refreshed. If, however, you wake up multiple times during the night and can’t get back to sleep, you could sleep in later and still get a total of 8 hours, but you’ll probably feel exhausted from the lack of consistent deep sleep.

When working on a project or task that requires deep, focused work each day, make sure to have a stopping point and give your brain a rest for the evening.

Take advantage of your downtime, and be more productive in the long run.

Written by

Digital professional, creative life. Product manager for design systems at REI.

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