RHR: How to be Insanely Productive Without Destroying Your Health

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Part two of our show on healthy productivity.  If you missed part one, check it out here.

In this episode, we cover:

2:17 What Chris ate for breakfast
4:30 The “busyness” pitfall that steals productivity
18:00 How does rest and rejuvenation contribute to productivity?
33:50 If you don’t do this enough, you won’t be productive…
40:50 Cultivating unfocused downtime
44:00 The most fundamental productivity principle for your life

Links We Discuss

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Full Text Transcript:

Steve Wright:  Hey, everyone.  Welcome to another episode of the Revolution Health Radio Show.  This show is brought to you by ChrisKresser.com.  I’m your host, Steve Wright from SCDLifestyle.com, and with me is integrative medical practitioner and healthy skeptic Chris Kresser.  Chris, how are you doing now that you got your computer figured out?

Chris Kresser:  Doing pretty well.  I had a little temporary hiccup there, but it’s all good.

Steve Wright:  All right, good deal.  Computers are kind of like cars with me:  If they don’t work properly, I get so frustrated.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.  Not something I want to be spending my time on, that’s for sure.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, especially when we’re talking about part two of how to be insanely productive and not ruin your health.  Obviously if your computer doesn’t work, that would be a good way to not be insanely productive.

Chris Kresser:  That’s true!  Yesterday the Internet connection in my home office when out for several hours, and it just struck me how unbelievably tied to this technology that we are now.  It was really hard to get stuff done.  I was able to do some writing and things that I didn’t require an Internet connection for, but other than that, it was pretty tricky.

Steve Wright:  Part six, the unmentioned part of how to be insanely productive, is to have backup computers and backup Internet connections.

Chris Kresser:  A satellite wireless Internet connection or something.

Steve Wright:  Yeah.  Satphones.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, this will be good.  We got some great feedback from the first episode.  I actually noticed a tweet from Stitcher yesterday that said it was one of the top rated podcasts for the week for them.  So, it seems like it’s a topic that resonates with a lot of people, and we only got through two out of five principles of productivity that I wanted to talk about, so we’re going to do the remaining three today.

What Chris ate for breakfast

Steve Wright:  Before we get to those, Chris, I know a staple of being productive, especially for yourself, is having an amazing breakfast.  So, what did you eat today.

Chris Kresser:  Right, having an amazing breakfast or sometimes not having breakfast at all.  Today I did an intermittent fast day, and I just had some tea this morning.  And for lunch just now I had some duck crepinettes from The Fifth Quarter, my favorite charcuterie down at the Berkeley farmers’ market, and then I had some yuca fries.  Earlier this week, we were getting ready to make a huge batch of yuca fries, so we chopped them into fry shapes, I boiled them, which you have to do for 25 or 30 minutes before, not only just to make the texture right, but because yuca is toxic if you don’t boil it first.  And then we went to put them in the oven and our oven was broken, so we had a whole bunch of yuca fries just waiting to be cooked, and I’ve just been eating them throughout the week, which has been nice because I didn’t have to prepare them in advance.  So, I had those roasted in some duck fat with sea salt.  And then I steamed some kale and just drizzled a little bit of olive oil on it, and then I had some beet kvass along with it.

Steve Wright:  Sounds delicious, as always.

Chris Kresser:  It was pretty good.

Steve Wright:  OK, well, before we get into a recap of what the five factors of how Chris is insanely productive, I just want to let everybody know that Chris has put together a free 13-part email series called Beyond Paleo.  Now, well over 30,000 people have already signed up for this free email course in which Chris reveals his best tips and tricks for burning fat, boosting energy, and preventing and reversing disease without drugs.  So, if you’re not part of this Beyond Paleo movement yet, you need to go over to his website, ChrisKresser.com, look for the big red box, and go ahead and put your name and email into that box.  Chris is very concerned about your privacy, he would never share your email with anyone, but he will start sending you these free 13 emails.  I highly recommend you go and do that right now before we get rocking and rolling into how to be productive.

Chris Kresser:  All right, so in the first episode I mentioned that we were going to cover five principles, and they are move your body, clear your mind, plan and prioritize, rest and rejuvenate, and play and have fun.  We covered move your body and clear your mind in the first part of this series, and you can go find that online or in the iTunes store if you haven’t heard it yet.

The “busyness” pitfall that steals productivity

Today we’re going to start with plan and prioritize.  So, what I mean by this is that in order to be productive, you need a clear vision of what you want to accomplish and a plan for how to accomplish it.  One of the biggest pitfalls in terms of productivity is busyness that doesn’t get you closer to accomplishing your goals.  You could, in theory, work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but be completely unproductive if you’re not reaching your productivity goals.  I just want to make that distinction because I think it’s important, and I think a lot of people that I’ve come across and spoken to about this, it’s a major issue for them.  Most people don’t have any problem being busy.  In fact, almost everyone I know is too busy, but the problem is that a lot of the busyness and the things they find themselves being busy with are not necessarily things that get them closer to their goals.  So, the first step is clearly defining what your goals are, and I find that a lot of people skip over this step in productivity discussions, but in some ways it’s the most crucial.  It’s kind of like if you’re blindfolded and you can’t even see the target, you’re obviously going to have a much harder time hitting it, but if you know exactly what your target is and you’re always keeping it in mind and you’re always evaluating the choices that you make on a daily and weekly and monthly basis in terms of whether they get you closer to that target, then all of your efforts are going to be a lot more focused, and then you’ll cut out – or minimize, at least – the time that you spend on trivial tasks that don’t get you closer to your goal.

There are a lot of different systems for this type of planning and productivity.  I’m definitely not an expert on all the various options here.  One of the ones that I’ve been exposed to and that I’ve drawn loosely from is called Getting Things Done.  It’s a book of the same name by David Allen, and there’s a whole website and community of people who are doing this.  I personally find the entire system to be overkill for myself.  I know a lot of people really love it and do the full system.  For me, it’s too much, but there are certain aspects that I’ve found to be really, really helpful.  One of those is called the weekly review and the daily review, and I also do a monthly review.  I think that’s also part of it.  I can’t remember or if I just made that up!  So, starting from the most general to the most specific, each month I sit down and I write down – or I put in my application that I use for this, which I’ll tell you about in a second – what I want to accomplish for the month.  And these are really, like, the 30,000-foot priorities and goals.  These are big things, and it’s generally best to limit it – depending on how much time you’re going to be able to devote – to two to three key objectives that you want to reach.  If you list too many goals, you’re going to get overwhelmed and you’re not going to be able to follow through, and that’s discouraging and it ends up generally leading to lower productivity.

Steve Wright:  Hey, Chris, could you talk about the scale at which you pick that goal?  I think 30,000 feet, for some people, looks different, such as:  Oh, I’m going to be six-pack abs and build a million-dollar business this month.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  It depends what’s going on for me, but right now with the book coming out in a couple of months and a complete redesign of my website and a new online program to support the book and things like that, the 30,000-foot goals for me are actually pretty specific.  They’re things like finishing writing the email course that goes along with the online program that’s associated with the book, or it might be to finish editing and proofreading the book, or it might be something along those lines, a deadline that I absolutely have to meet because I have a lot of those right now, rather than bigger, more abstract goals like build a million-dollar business or get six-pack abs.  I don’t really think you can necessarily do those in a month, so I don’t know that those are what I’m talking about here with monthly goals.  That’s what I would refer to as an overall vision, some key things that you’re holding as your vision for the future.  Those, to me, wouldn’t be monthly.  Those would just be key vision items that you should keep in mind even when you’re doing your monthly goals and your weekly goals and your daily goals.  You just want to evaluate anything that you’re writing down that you want to accomplish against those bigger vision items.

The weekly review is the same, of course.  I do it on Monday morning.  He, I think, advises on Sunday.  It doesn’t really matter when you do it.  It’s whenever you feel like it’s a good time for you based on your particular schedule.  I list the tasks that I want to accomplish for that week, and they’re, of course, then going to be related to the goals that I established when I did the monthly review.  I also go back and see if there are any loose tasks that I didn’t get accomplished from the previous week, any people that I need to follow up with, people that are involved in accomplishing the things that I want to do, and I check my calendar for appointments.  I just generally get a sense of what I have going on that week, and then I actually block out time in my calendar for when I’m going to do each of the things that I’m setting out to do.  So, I don’t just list the things that I’m going to do.  I look in my calendar and actually block that time out so that when those days come around, I don’t really have to think about what I’m supposed to do that day and go through this process as much on a daily basis.

Then there is a daily review, but that’s generally pretty quick because I’ve already done the heavy lifting with the weekly review, but in the morning, I’ll look and see what I have on my list for that day, and I’ll check my appointments, and if anything has changed, I’ll make any revisions that I need to make.  But I really, for the daily review, make sure to be super focused and only have a few tasks that I need to get done on my list, given the amount of time that I have to spend on those things.  I think one of the big mistakes that people make in this situation is if you have a to-do list that’s way too long and you’re only able to check a couple things off that list, you end up at the end of the day feeling like you haven’t accomplished very much.  But if you are more realistic about what you can accomplish and you just leave the few things on your list for the day that you really can accomplish there and then you check those off, you’ll feel more satisfied and successful at the end of the day, and you’ll be more likely to stick with whatever system that you create.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, I think you mentioned something there that’s also very key, or at least I found it in my life to be very transformative, which is a lot of us who are listening to this podcast are very efficient at having a to-do list, but the idea of actually assigning a date and a time to take on that task, I think, is very transformative for me, especially when it’s an item that I don’t necessarily always enjoy due to lack of skill or it’s just something that I’m not super passionate about.  Taking it to that next level where you actually put your to-do list into action, I think that’s a big key here.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, thanks for emphasizing that because that was a huge part of it for me, too.  It’s easy to just have something on your list and just look at it and see that it’s on your list and then do something else.  It just sits there on your list, and it never really gets done.  Actually scheduling it as if you would schedule any other appointment that you have to do can be pretty powerful because it just really blocks out the time in your mind.  You create that psychic space for it, and once you get into the rhythm, you just sit down and do it like any other commitment or obligation.  I’ve found that over time, when you meet those commitments enough, it just becomes kind of second nature and it’s not something that you really have to struggle with as much, especially if you’re doing all the other things that we’re going to talk about today and that we talked about last time.

Steve Wright:  You know what’s really interesting about what we’re talking about right now is that I know there have been points in my life where I haven’t been so diligent at planning this out.  I think it was Peter Drucker who talked about how you can only improve what you measure, and so it’s kind of funny to think about the fact that you can’t actually know if you’re productive unless you have some laid-out goals in which to be productive to.

Chris Kresser:  That’s right.  That’s another really crucial reason to do this kind of visioning and planning.

In terms of software, the application that I use is called Things, and it’s great because it’s designed for the Getting Things Done system, so if you’re working within that framework, it really makes a lot of sense.  They have iOS apps and a Mac version.  I don’t think they have a PC version, but I’m not sure.  So, it keeps in sync on all of my different devices.  It’s simple enough, not too complex, not too busy, and does exactly what I need and I like it.  There are a lot of other choices out there.  I think OmniFocus is another one from the Omni Group for Mac.  I don’t know.  You’re a PC guy, right, Steve?  Do you use anything for that?

Steve Wright:  Yeah.  Everybody’s always hating on the PC guys.

Chris Kresser:  Well, you’re in the majority, so tell us what you use, if anything.

Steve Wright:  I actually don’t use any digital apps for this yet.  I love my sticky notes.

Chris Kresser:  You’re old school.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, I like sticky notes, and I typically will make a new one every day.  I have, like, a big week one where I have all different things, and then I pull the next day’s key objectives and typically try to only do about three because I know that I have other things that are just a staple in my day.  But as far as certain key productivity things, I kind of make a new sticky note every day, and then that allows me that satisfaction of that big crossing it out, you know?

Chris Kresser:  Right.  It just goes to show there’s certainly a wide range of individual variation here in terms of what system works best for your temperament.  I think having a lot of sticky notes around would absolutely drive me crazy!  There’s plenty of room here.  The important thing is not what you use as a system, but choosing one that works for you.  I do think, actually, that for the visioning stuff, the bigger, broader vision of what you want to accomplish overall in your life and then even with the monthly review, I tend to use a Moleskine journal and like to sit in a quiet place, maybe go outside and sit in the sun or be in a quiet environment with some music, because those are more kind of creative processes, and I find personally that I don’t like to be staring at a computer when I’m doing that.  But the weekly and daily reviews require a little bit more organization and scheduling and things like that, so I do use software and the computer for that.

So, let’s move on to the next one because we’re going to be getting back into the realm of health more specifically here.  This is all related to health, I think, how to be productive and not ruin your healthy, but this next one, in particular, rest and rejuvenate, is very directly related to health.

Steve Wright:  This is where you get, like, 4 hours of sleep a night, right?

How does rest and rejuvenation contribute to productivity?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, exactly!  In the US, we are working harder than ever.  This is not just our imagination.  There’s plenty of research to support this.  American men and women are working 12 or 13 hours more a week today than they were in 1968.  That’s 45 years, but that’s a pretty significant change, 12 or 13 hours a week.  That’s more than a full day of work in that period of time extra.  Americans, on average, work 136 more hours than Japanese workers.  I think a lot of people have the idea that Japanese workers work way harder than American’s but that’s not true.

Steve Wright:  They actually have a term for that, too, like working to death.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.  We work 260 more hours than our British counterparts, and we work 499 hours more than French workers!  I mean, that is a crazy difference.  And it’s also different politically because the European Union mandates 20 days of paid vacation a year.  In the Netherlands, 26 days is typical.  In the US, we have no federal laws guaranteeing any paid time off at all, any sick leave or even holiday breaks.  Then there’s the change in what happens when people actually take a break or go on vacation.  Most people in surveys have admitted to incessantly checking their email and social media accounts while they’re on vacation, but unfortunately this has definitely not translated into higher productivity, and ironically the rush to get things done and the constant busyness that is the norm now in American society has led to lower productivity, according to several measures.

There’s been a lot of discussion about this.  You may have read some articles in the mainstream media, but a lot of the recent research suggests – and this is, I’m sure, common sense to many of you – that the human mind needs downtime and space and unfocused time to stay productive.  There was an article in The New York Times by Tim Kreider, and there was a great quote that I want to read.  He says:  “Idleness is not just 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.”  And then there was an article in Scientific American that I came across a couple weeks ago, I think the same day that we recorded the first episode of this series, and there’s another quote that said:  “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”

So, why is this?  Well, research has found that the brain is not inactive during periods of rest, and that was the assumption for many, many years up until very recently, that when we weren’t actively engaged in something with our brain that it was just kind of idle like your car is at a stop sign.  But studies have found that quite the opposite is true, that there are particular sets of scattered brain regions that begin to fire synchronously during rest, specifically when thoughts are wandering and we’re just kind of zoning out.  This circuit that comes to life during rest is known as the default mode network, and it’s understood to be essential to the formation of memories, to the understanding of human behavior and to creativity, and it actually explains why many people get their best ideas in the shower or while they’re washing dishes or in that hazy time maybe when you’re falling asleep or just waking up.  The brain goes into a different pattern there, and as I said, those regions of the brain that don’t fire synchronously when the brain is actively engaged start to fire synchronously then, and that allows a different type of thought process to occur.  There’s a very concrete example of how rest and rejuvenation can help contribute to productivity because it leads to a different type of thought process than is possible if our mind is constantly engaged.

Now, there’s also tons of research showing that the most creative and productive and accomplished people in many different disciplines, like sports or business or art, rarely practice more than 4 hours a day, on average, and they also take more breaks and naps and sleep more than mediocre performers in those disciplines, and there have actually been some comparative studies.  One that I read about in the one of the articles looked at classical music students.  They were at a pretty high level.  Even the “mediocre” ones, you know, they were at an internationally recognized music school, so they weren’t slouches themselves!  But what separated the people who were destined to become virtuosos and take top spots in orchestras around the world was that the top performers rested more and they were more focused in their practice and they had more regular downtime, whereas the mediocre performers practiced more, actually, and didn’t nap and rest as much and didn’t sleep as much.  And that’s true, as I said, across all different disciplines, not just music.

Steve Wright:  Talk a little bit more about that, Chris.  What is downtime or rest time look like for you, both pre-kids and post-kids?

Chris Kresser:  Well, definitely less post-kids, I can tell you that, and I’m sure most parents can relate to that.  For me, there’s kind of, like, structured downtime and unstructured downtime.  We’re skipping ahead a little bit to the rejuvenate part, but that’s fine.  So, structured downtime would be my meditation practice, times where I do a body scan or mindfulness-based stress reduction or some kind of other progressive relaxation.  I’m not a big napper.  It’s pretty rare that I’ll take a nap, just simply because I’m often not that tired in the daytime and I prefer the effects of meditation or the mindfulness-based stress reduction thing, but I don’t have any philosophical objection to naps, and I think they’re a great idea.  I tend to nap maybe a more on vacation or something like that if I’ve been taking a more extended period of time off.  And then there will be times just walking.  I’ll go for a walk in the woods nearby my house.  I’ll go outside and sit in the sun and get some vitamin D.  There’s a kind of chaise lounge in the back, and I’ll just lie on that and just kind of let my mind wander and not do anything in particular.  I love to go to the beach and do that when there’s time.

And then terms of rejuvenation and play, that has taken many forms for me in the past.  It could be music, could be surfing, various art forms, dance.  I got into ceramics quite a bit for a while at one point.  I’ve done a lot of different things, and I like to change up what I do as far as that goes.  These days it’s mostly photography – pictures of my daughter for the most part! – and cooking, food preparation that I have time to do.  And then when I’m able to, which is less than I would like, I get to go out surfing and dance and do some of things that I’ve done for most of my life.

Steve Wright:  Awesome.  Thanks for sharing that.

Chris Kresser:  Sure.  So, getting back to some research that supports all this, there are some really interesting studies that suggest that taking longer breaks, like vacations, is also crucial to productivity.  There was a pretty well-known study at Harvard Business School that tracked the work habits of people at the Boston Consulting Group.  Each year, the bosses, I guess, insisted that the employees take regular time off, even when they thought they couldn’t be away from the office, and they also suggested taking one day off during the week, and then the third thing was that they unplug completely from work at night.  So, when they leave the office, they don’t take their work home with them.  They’re not checking their email at night.  They’re not checking in at work at all when they’re at home.  And as you might imagine, there was a lot of resistance to this at first when this was implemented.  Everyone was afraid they’d fall behind and they wouldn’t be able to do their work, but over time, the study showed that they were not only more satisfied with their jobs, which isn’t surprising, but they were more productive.  And that might be surprising because they were working less, but when they were working, they were accomplishing more, and they were more revived and rested and able to focus their brains.  So, if you understand what we’ve been talking about, that’s actually not surprising.

If you want to read up a little more on the research behind this and some of the themes that we’ve been talking about as far as rest and downtime contributing to productivity, I’d recommend a book called Be Excellent at Anything by Tony Schwartz.  It’s a really good little book.  You’ll be able to read it quickly, and if you’re interested in this, I think you’ll like it a lot.

In terms of recommendations, I would suggest making sure to schedule some leisure time and rest breaks into your day.  So, coming back to the daily review or even the weekly review, when I schedule out all of the things that I want to get accomplished, I also schedule out these breaks.  I’ll schedule when I’m going to meditate in a given day, and I’ll schedule some time for downtime in advance so that I don’t just get busy and forget to do it.  And I’ll have a reminder pop up, too.  For example, this morning I knew I had a busy morning, a lot of meetings, and I wasn’t going to be able to sit like I normally do in the mornings, so I scheduled it for just after we record this podcast, Steve, and my reminder just popped up on my screen to remind me that I’m supposed to sit after this.  That’s really important because it’s so easy to get caught up in everything that’s going on.  Especially for people who aren’t accustomed to this sort of routine where you’re doing regular breaks and rest and rejuvenation, it’s really easy to just tell yourself that it’s not as important as something else that you’re working on when actually, in many cases, it’s probably more important that you stop and do that in terms of not only just for your health, but for your actual productivity.  That’s the thing that’s so hard sometimes for people to wrap their head around.  People might think:  Oh, yeah, I know it’s good for my health, but I really have to get this project done, so I don’t have time to do that.  But the reality is it’s better for your productivity for that project.  If you actually took that break, you’d probably come back and be able to finish whatever you’re doing in a more focused, efficient way than if you just struggle through and keep working through the time that you were supposed to take off.  That’s a really important concept to grasp.

Steve Wright:  Yeah.  I think that’s pretty pervasive throughout our culture right now, or at least, it feels like it anyway in the Western culture to not take downtime, like you’re wasting time!

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely.  There are all these phrases like, “Time is money,” and, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”  It’s kind of ridiculous.  It would be one thing if it were possible to just work endlessly and that your productivity would continue to go up because then there would actually be a choice that you would have to make.  You would have to say:  OK, do I value my health more, my sanity and well-being and my relationships and other things in my life aside from work, or do I value being more productive at work?  Right?  And I think that’s the tradeoff that a lot of people think they have to choose between or the question that they think they have to answer, but the truth is there is no such tradeoff.  It’s actually that if you value productivity and want to be as productive as you possibly can be at work, you have to do that downtime.  It’s not one or the other.  And that’s the good news, too, is that you can have a more balanced life and be healthier and be more productive all at the same time.  That’s the coolest thing about this.

Steve Wright:  So, you’re saying I can have my paleo cake and eat it too!

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, exactly!  So, recommendations for this:  scheduling some leisure time and rest breaks in your day.  We talked about that.  And then making sure you take some time to do nothing.  Sit in the sun, play with your dog or your children, or take a walk.  There’s always a place for spontaneity, too.  It might sound like every minute of my day is scheduled out, and sometimes they are, but I also think it’s important to have room for spontaneity.  Occasionally Sylvie will come bang on my door unexpectedly and I’m in the middle of something, and she has something that she really wants to show me or somewhere she wants to take me, and just leaving some room for those kinds of things to happen is important – at least for me.  I think you have to make your own decisions as far as that goes.  Different people have different thresholds of tolerance for scheduling versus not scheduling, but since we’re talking about productivity, I do think it works best to have most of your time spoken for and scheduled during the day and then leave some time to deviate from that.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, I think it’s almost a misconception – at least in my opinion it is – that if you plan more, you’re less spontaneous.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Steve Wright:  I find it to be the reverse, that the more I plan, the more I’m able to immediately commit to some sort of spontaneous event that might pop into my reality that day.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s a great point, because if you have a plan and you’re on track, it’s easier for you to be able to just step away from it for a temporary period and know that you’re not completely derailed, whereas if you just have this kind of vague sense of being overwhelmed with work and lots of stuff to do and you don’t really have any idea when it’s going to get done, then you’ll be in this constant state of stress and anxiety, and then you’ll just feel like you can’t ever take any time like that because you don’t have any vision for when things are actually going to get done.  So, I agree, Steve.  The more you plan and have a sense of how and when you’re going to accomplish things, the more likely it is that you’ll have some energy freed up for that kind of spontaneity.

If you don’t do this enough, you won’t be productive…

The next thing we need to talk about is the elephant in the room, which is sleep.  Sleep is absolutely crucial to productivity.  Poor sleep has numerous effects on cognitive function, like decreased short-term memory, reduced learning capacity, decline in mental stamina, inability to sustain attention, and decreases in performance in tasks that require more complex thinking.  So, it’s really as simple as this:  If you don’t sleep enough, you won’t be productive, or you won’t be as productive as you could be, period.  And unfortunately there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that humans require 7 to 9 hours of sleep in the vast majority of cases, but that 35% of US adults are sleeping fewer than 6 hours a night.  That is profound.  People often ask me:  What do you think is the biggest threat to our health right now?  And it’s not an easy question to answer, and there are so many different ways that I could answer it, but I honestly think that sleep deprivation, it’s hard to top that because sleep is so crucial for us in so many different ways.  Every system in the body depends on sleep, and this precipitous decline in the average amount of sleep that we get is really scary.  It’s like a scary experiment we’re performing on ourselves, and so far, the results are not encouraging.  There’s a lot more research coming out these days about how chronic sleep deprivation affects everything from metabolic function to brain function to cardiovascular function to reproductive function to mood, and then the more obvious things like energy.  I think a lot of people think it’s kind of normal that we only sleep less than 6 hours a night, and it may be today, but it’s a relatively recent phenomenon.  Just 50 years ago, only 2% – down from 35% today – of Americans averaged less than 6 hours of sleep a night, so that is a huge, huge increase in a very short period of time.  And during that period, American adults and adolescents lost about 2 hours of sleep a night.  The average used to be 8 hours, and now it’s less than 6 hours for many people.

In my book, I have a whole chapter on sleep, so make sure to check that out, but I can summarize the recommendations, which are to make sleep a priority.  That means giving yourself at least 8 hours in bed a night.  You may not sleep the full 8 hours, but you need to allow 8 hours to be in bed so that you can really give yourself the chance of sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night.  You want to control your exposure to artificial light.  It’s been shown that certain wavelengths of artificial light, particularly blue light that is emitted from computer screens and tablets, can suppress our natural production of melatonin, which helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle, and if you have low levels of melatonin at night, you’re not going to sleep restfully.  So, I recommend not using a computer or tablet within 2 hours of going to bed, and I recommend getting some orange glasses from Amazon.  These orange glasses will block out those melatonin-suppressing wavelengths of light, and you can put them on after dark when you turn on your lights in your home.  They’re kind of dorky looking, but you’re at home.  This is your health that we’re talking about, and your sleep.  I’ve actually had some patients who have had really chronic intractable insomnia and tried just about everything, and these glasses have really helped them where nothing else has.  If you go to my website and you go to the store, there’s a recommended products page that has a link to these glasses on Amazon.

Steve Wright:  I know that when I use them, Chris, I get sleepy so fast it’s crazy.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s what a lot of people say.  I use them myself as well.  And it’s especially important to use them if, for whatever reason, have to use an electronic device at night within 2 hours of going to bed.  There’s also f.lux, which is software that changes the illumination of your computer or tablet to be warmer, which means that it’s less blue, which means that it will have less of a melatonin-suppressing effect.  Those two things are important or helpful.  You want to get plenty of exercise and physical activity during the day.  That really supports good sleep at night.  Studies have suggested that power naps during the day can be beneficial for productivity, and there is a lot of conflicting research about this, about how long naps should be, but many of the studies I’ve seen suggest that 10 minutes might be ideal.  That sounds really short, but when you take longer naps, there’s a kind of recovery period that can actually get in the way of productivity, and shorter naps aren’t restorative enough, so at least in a few studies, this 10-minute power nap seems to be the sweet spot.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, I use a lot of 20-minute naps.  I’ll do those, like, every other day, sometimes twice a day, depending on what’s going on.

Chris Kresser:  Nice.

Steve Wright:  I’ll always set an alarm on my phone and put the phone across the room.  That way I can’t just hit snooze.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Steve Wright:  But what’s really fascinating is I’ll find myself ready to get out of bed whether I fall asleep or not by, like, 18 or 19 minutes.  It’s really interesting.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  You just pop right out of it, huh?

Steve Wright:  Mm-hmm.

Cultivating unfocused downtime

Chris Kresser:  OK, so we talked already a little bit about rejuvenation earlier.  This is another important part of downtime, and I’m referring here to downtime that’s really unfocused, a place for creativity and exploration.  I think having a hobby is one of the best ways to cultivate this, which is just something that you do only because you love doing it, that doesn’t have any goals or outcomes attached to it.  I mean, certainly it’s possible to have a hobby that has goals and outcomes attached to it, but that’s not what I’m referring to here.  I’m referring to things that you do just for the joy of doing it.  As I said, in the past for me, that’s been music or surfing or various other kinds of art forms, and these days it’s more photography and cooking and surfing when I can do it.

There’s a lot of research actually suggesting that many of the most successful people – again across multiple different disciplines – have hobbies, and music seems to be an especially common hobby amongst really successful people.  They claim – perhaps not surprisingly – that these hobbies inform and enrich their work activity and their ability to be productive because they expand their mind or they encourage them to think in different ways, or maybe if someone works in a really cognitive, intellectual type of vocation and they have a hobby that’s really physical, it puts them in a completely different felt experience, which then makes it easily to go back to doing their more normal work.  There are a lot of reasons for doing it, but if you don’t have a hobby or you’ve been thinking of picking one up but you feel like you’re too busy, I’d really encourage you to consider doing it.  Just allocate a short amount of time per day to do it.  It doesn’t have to be something that you make into a huge chore and that you have to practice for several hours a day, but it should be something that is a relief for you, a source of joy and relaxation and a real break from everything else that you do.

Steve Wright:  Do you consider fiction reading part of that, Chris?

Chris Kresser:  It certainly satisfies certain aspects of that.  If you enjoy it, you’re maybe transported to a different time and place in your mind, you’re not thinking about your work.  I think it engages a different part of the brain, certainly than watching TV or being on the Internet because you’re imagining the places that you’re reading about.  So, I do think it meets some of those criteria, but the one aspect where it might fall a little bit short in terms of a hobby is that there’s no expression involved with it.  There’s no creative expression.  And I think that that is really particularly therapeutic in many cases.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, that makes sense.

The most fundamental productivity principle for your life

Chris Kresser:  All right, so the last principle is to play and have fun, and there’s a saying I’m sure everyone is familiar with:  All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.  And it is interesting that in many cases we have sayings in our lexicon that reflect some of these principles that we’re talking about, so it’s not like modern research has just discovered all of these things and nobody’s ever known about them before.  But as is often the case, the research takes a while to catch up with common sense or what people have always known, and speaking personally, it is helpful to see the research because it just adds some additional weight to those sayings and truisms that we can sometimes discount because we’ve heard them so much that they almost seem trite or like they may not have a lot of truth behind them.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that play is as fundamental to life as some of the other things we’re talked about, like sleep and downtime, pleasure, connection and dreams, all of which characterize the human experience.  Play isn’t just a frivolous luxury as it has been portrayed, especially at certain times of our history in this country.  It actually has been shown to keep our minds and brains flexible, and it – perhaps most importantly – helps us to adapt to a changing and unpredictable world.  Play has been part of our evolutionary heritage.  It emerged and became prevalent in warm-blooded animals with larger brains, and in fact, the smarter an animal is, the more it plays.  In adults, playfulness is associated with several positive behaviors like creativity, productivity, flexibility, optimism, empathy, social altruism, and stress tolerance or the capacity to handle stress.

There’s a medical doctor who has done a lot of research on play and the beneficial effects of play, Dr. Stuart Brown.  He has a great book on play, and he defines play as follows.  There are several principles.  One is that it’s apparently purposeless.  So, kind of like the rejuvenation and the hobbies we were talking about before, it’s just done for its own sake.  It’s voluntary, so nobody’s forcing you to do it.  It’s inherently attractive; you’re naturally drawn to it.  It’s outside time.  You hear of athletes and other people talking about getting into the flow and experiencing that sense of flow where they just have a really heightened sense of awareness and presence, and that really exists outside of time.  For me, surfing is the activity where I experience that the most, where when I’m paddling for a wave or I catch the wave and I’m riding it, I’m just so hyper-focused in the present moment and just paying attention to the sensations of my feet on the board and the water and the wind and sun and the movement of the wave that time just doesn’t really even come into that equation.  Related to that is that play is outside self, so you sort of lose a sense of self-consciousness or a consciousness of yourself as a separate entity or individual.  You have a sense of yourself almost blending in with the world around you.  Play is improvisational or spontaneous, and it’s, finally, mildly addictive, is the last principle.

If you think about all of these principles, you realize that play doesn’t have to be games or sports.  Art and music and all different forms of creative expression or even work can meet the definition of play if it satisfies those criteria.  If you’re interested, I’d recommend Stuart Brown’s book.  It’s really fascinating.  But what I would suggest from his book, he has some great recommendations which are making a list of activities that bring you joy and that are fun for you and that meet the criteria that I’ve just laid out.  So, you have a list of play activities, and you put that on your desk or your fridge, and when you get stuck and you’re in a place where you can’t even think of anything that you like to do and that’s fun, you can just do one of those activities, or if you’re in kind of a rut, you can do one of those things.  Kids are experts at play, as I’m sure you know, and pets or animals are as well, so playing with pets and kids is always a good idea because we can learn from them how they do it.  And then joining a team or committing to some kind of regular play opportunity is another good idea, another way to make sure that play is a regular feature in your life.  If you’re having trouble thinking of things that would satisfy these criteria for you, Dr. Brown recommends taking a play history, so looking back on your life at other times in your life, to consider things that you did that met these criteria at another time in your life, and that might help trigger some ideas for activities that might meet those criteria for you now.

Steve Wright:  Well, I just signed up for a new play activity, Chris.  It starts next week.  I’m going to be a parkour champion of the world pretty soon.

Chris Kresser:  Oh, really?  That’s cool.  Is it, like, a parkour class?

Steve Wright:  Yeah, there’s a big parkour gym here in Boulder that has various levels of certification before you get to probably go to the cool parts of the gym, so I’m going to start the fundamentals next week.

Chris Kresser:  Wow, that’s fun.  So, when I come to Boulder for the book tour, you’re going to be, like, jumping off a building, between buildings, or scaling the wall or something like that?

Steve Wright:  Yeah, I’ll probably just run up, like, a 20-foot wall and just hang out up there, you know, if I need to get away.

Chris Kresser:  That’s great.  Yeah, see?  There are all kinds of things that you can do to have a good time.

So, I think that’s it.  That concludes part two of the How to be Insanely Productive Without Destroying Your Health Series, and we’d love to hear your thoughts, what’s worked for you, what you’ve found to be challenging.  Come to the website, the blog post about this podcast, and leave your comments.  We’ll put some of the links up to some of the resources that we’ve talked about in the show notes.  I hope this has been beneficial, and I hope it leads to more productivity and greater health for all of you.

Steve Wright:  For the record, on the last podcast, on episode one about this, we asked people to put in the comments one thing that they were going to work on before this podcast, and I scanned the comments and I did not see one person at least chime in that they attempted one of the ideas that you talked about, Chris.

Chris Kresser:  Ah.

Steve Wright:  So, I will say that I was attempting to do the daily inTUNE training that Dan Pardi has in Dan’s Plan.  I’ve been trying to get that and make that into a habit.  I’m hoping some other listeners out there are going to chime in on the comments section here.

Chris Kresser:  So, how did that go for you, Steve?

Steve Wright:  So far, it’s kind of one of those things where one day I’ll hit it really good and I’ll have done five to ten sets of it, and other days it just absolutely goes away, like I do once in the morning and I totally forget until the nighttime.

Chris Kresser:  Right.  You need a better reminder system, perhaps.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m thinking.  Actually I’m also thinking about making it one of my goals for the day.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Steve Wright:  Just actually making it a priority on my to-do list as well.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  Put it on your Lift.Do list if you’re using that.

Steve Wright:  That’s true.

Chris Kresser:  All right, everybody, again, I hope this was helpful and we’ll see you next time.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, thanks, everyone, for listening.  We will be doing some more Q&A episodes at some point, so if you have any questions you’d like to submit for Chris to help you with, please go over to ChrisKresser.com and use the podcast submission link to submit those.

Note: I earn a small commission if you use the links in this article to purchase the products I mentioned. I only recommend products I would use myself or that I use with patients in my practice. Your purchase helps support this site and my ongoing research.

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Kathy says

    I already wear prescription glasses and cannot wear contacts. Are there any orange glasses that will fit over my prescription glasses? (That are reasonably priced – translation cheap!) Thx.

  2. caimanjosh says

    Really excellent series on increasing productivity while maintaining sanity. I think this is the best “increase your productivity” writeup I’ve seen on the internet (which is saying a lot, since these sorts of articles are a dime-a-dozen). Chris, I think you might consider publishing a condensed, summarized blog post encapsulating the main ideas here, for those who (in the name of staying productive, haha) feel they don’t have time to read the full text of both transcribed podcasts. Thanks for posting!

  3. RayRay says

    Chris- I can’t seem to download this podcast on the Podcast App (yet, I’ve been able to download all your other podcast episodes in the past). Any recommendations? Thanks!

  4. Gittit says

    My preferred task manager is DropTask – https://www.droptask.com
    It’s as simple as all the others, but geared towards “visual thinkers” – you know who you are :)
    I’ve tried out Things and other simple task managing tools before I found it but none of them really stuck. The interface just didn’t mesh with the way my mind works.

  5. Cathryn says

    I thought you said there was a link in your store for the orange tinted glasses on Amazon that you recommend, but I do not see them. Am I looking in the wrong place?

  6. Honora says

    I’ve got f.lux and am sleeping really well these days. I actually have orange lensed glasses as I bought them for seeing in blizzards. I’ll give them a crack as well.

  7. Chris Bickley says

    Anyone have the link to them glasses? I cant find the link anywhere. Also is there a pair of glasses that are reccommended on the Amazon UK website?

    Thanks.

  8. katieLNK says

    I will try to break out the colored pencils tonight for some art time…. after I make paleo dinner and lunch for tomorrow, clean kitchen, meditate, feed cat, pack gym bag for tomorrow…..ahhhhhhh where does the day go?

  9. daniel says

    I like that you move into calling your meditation practice, “sitting”.

    That’s all it really is anyway. Just sitting.

    If I get up and walk into the bedroom sometimes my wife will ask what I’m about to do and I’ll tell her I’m going to sit.

    This was a cool piece and it made me smile when I heard you refer to your practice that way, so I had to comment.

    Thanks for the good work, Chris, it’s gold.

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