How to rebalance and refresh your energies and focus to take on new challenges. The importance of healthy sleep and deep work.

( Photo by Kasper Rasmussen )

Last time we spoke I shared some insights on learning occasions and tips to remove distractions such as turning off your phone notifications. Unfortunately I have to admit that in the last 3 months my learning performance has not been optimal. I have found myself easily distracted and lacking enough concentration to set my targets on the next step - and relentlessly move ahead in that direction. That's quite different from earlier this year when I obtained two AWS certifications for example!

It's fine. Sometimes we cannot always be or do what we want, we are humans and we are not always perfect. However, it is very important in my opinion to always be honest with ourselves about any gap appearing between our own desired path and what we actually get to achieve. Self-awareness and objectivity, even when they bring up unpleasant news, are the most powerful ways to address shortcomings and recalculate a new path.

Sleep

With that said, one thing I did manage to achieve, of the things I wanted to improve since the last time I wrote here, is getting back to a decent pace at reading. Of these, I believe the most impactful one is "Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams" by Dr. Matthew Walker , currently a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Berkeley (CA).

As you can imagine from the title, the book is about dissecting sleep and understanding how it works and what are the key mechanisms behind it. It then goes further to describe what are the main benefits associated to it, and then -in brutally honest details- what are the health implications of not sleeping enough. It is fair to say that you will have powerful, compelling reasons for heeding the warnings in the book once you have completed it.

If you would like to get a sense of the book contents in a different format, I recommend Matt's TED talk which I include here for convenience.

TED - Sleep is your superpower | Matt Walker

In one of the chapters, Matt makes a distinction between "owls" and "larks", that is people who naturally like to go to bed later and people who naturally like to go to bed earlier (and wake up later and earlier respectively). I always classified myself as an owl - and at the same time I was adamantly convinced that I did not need more than 5-6 hours of sleep every night.

( Photo by Rúben Marques )

Well - I also like to think that I am a scientist at heart, and therefore I'm more than willing to change my opinions when presented with compelling evidence. I therefore decided that I needed to try to be less of an owl (especially as I need to wake up pretty early in the morning) and aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night - while aiming at 8 hours as my golden standard. I also woved to eliminate caffeine after 12 PM, reduce dark chocolate intake and be mindful of alcohol consumption too far into the evenings.

I've now been on this regime for 4 weeks and I do feel a difference. Using a Fitbit as the measuring tool, and having regularised my bed and wake up times (including weekends), I'm definitely feeling a significantly positive effect on a lot of things:

  • Mood and positive thinking
  • Health and energy levels
  • Productivity and focus

This could as well be some placebo effect, but based on the experimental findings that are documented in the book and in other studies I'm inclined to conclude that what I feel is a direct consequence of the changes I put in place as above. Definitely try it if you are trying to make your days more productive. All-nighters trying to extract some value from an exhausted body and brain are really NOT working.

Focus

I have also recently finished another book. While it's definitely too early to comment on the impact it's having on my way of conducting things, I can say that some of the suggestions included in there are worthy of further investigation. The book is "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World" by Cal Newport, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University.

The main premise of the book is that, for various reasons, the environment that we currently live in at work and at home is damaging our human capacity to focus and achieve deep, concentrated work.

According to Cal, a state of deep work is essential to master productivity and, more importantly, enable those leap thoughts that support true advances and breakthroughs. (You can watch another TED talk here if you want some more information on it).

( Photo by Hannah Gibbs )

Furthermore, over time our brain will in time become "wired in" to succumb to the temptations of "shallow work". In other words, the feeling of being busy without actually doing something of value. This could manifest by avoiding undertaking challenging tasks and shifting instead to routine requests, or being lured into distractions (such as checking a news feed) as soon as we hit a challenging bump in a demanding task. These actions can gratificate us in the short term but are not leading to productive results.

Another interesting point made in the book is that, contrary to popular belief, our willpower and concentration are limited resources and our brain will be unable to effectively focus after having expended a certain amount of these in a given day.

This leads to the conclusion that planning your demanding tasks ahead gives you back some of these resources, so you can employ your willpower to do real focused work instead than expending it in wrangling out a plan of action in the moment. Additionally, having a schedule or template allows you to do time-keeping and more importantly measure the outcome of your deep work sessions.

Strikingly, Cal also mentions the following:

...providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges.

In other words, when you have healthy sleep you are in fact giving your unconscious mind some time to mull over and re-arrange those difficult questions that your conscious self finds so hard to tackle.

I hope you find the above considerations helpful. Let me know if you have tried any of the above and how it goes for you.