Founder Fuel: Let your brain work its magic

“If I can just get this one last thing finished”

“I must just get through these emails”

“I should just get this out the door”

How many times can you hear yourself thinking one of these, or similar, as you speed towards the holiday period? Driven by that little hit of dopamine we get when we tick something off the to-do list we just keep on doing that one last thing and, for many, never quite end up switching off for the holiday at all. And that’s what’s holding you back.

Here’s why we should all be taking a break this Christmas as busy entrepreneurs.

Our brains in overdrive

As entrepreneurs, we’re juggling numerous hats (often ones we’ve had to teach ourselves to get by), constantly learning, solving problems and doing all this at a fairly hair-raising pace. This is a huge cognitive load for our brains. And that’s before we build in the information overload now so common to our digital lives. It is overwhelmingly hyper-stimulating to our senses, and the speed of life just doesn’t allow enough time for things to settle and regroup.

In overdrive, we’re rarely doing our best work or performing at our optimum. More often than not the sympathetic nervous system is in control (ironically named, since it’s not really all that sympathetic) where the fight-flight-freeze instinct has been engaged. Most of us are now aware that this means we’re running on adrenaline or cortisol – but it is the impact of this that is often overlooked and is what really matters to us in business. With these hormones in play, we struggle to sleep properly so we can’t recover; our digestion doesn’t work properly so we can’t refuel; we can’t even make good decisions because all the good stuff has been pushed away from our brains to our legs and arms so that we can run away from the ‘threat’ that triggers fight-flight mode in the first place. In essence, it’s not great for business.

Your brain magically fixes things… if you’ll just let it

Turns out downtime is the secret-sauce for rebalancing and getting back all your productive super-powers. And the scientific evidence is there to back your holiday time.

The benefits of giving our brains a break has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of studies from investigations into the habits of office workers to the routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes. Not so long ago, it was thought the brain did little during periods of rest – with the brain largely offline when not focused on a mental task. It wasn’t until the 1990s that this changed with the acknowledgement of the default mode (DM) – a complex circuit that stirs to life when people are daydreaming or at rest.  

A recent review argues that in rest the brain is anything but idle, purposeless or unproductive. Downtime is in fact essential to mental processing – it is an opportunity for the brain to reflect, make sense of experiences learned and to process unresolved tensions and problems. This is why we have new ideas in the shower. This is why we solve problems when we walk to make a cuppa. This processing time is essential to both problem-solving and to achieving our highest levels of performance. And it’s magically working away in the background. So long as you take a break.

Further research suggests that the default mode is more active in especially creative people, and there’s also increasing evidence to show that our ability to learn actually occurs during this rest time, not during the task itself. All increasing the case for entrepreneurs to be taking downtime seriously.

Just in case you need more convincing…

The opposite of downtime — overwork — is linked to serious health problems. Research that studied work habits of 600,000 people in the US, UK and Australia found those working 55+ hours a week are 33% more likely to suffer a stroke than those who work 35-40 hours. Similarly compelling, a nine-year study found that those who skipped holidays for five consecutive years were 30% more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took at least one week’s annual leave. Even skipping one year’s holiday was associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

BTW… Downtime also improves business

If you’re still struggling to justify real downtime to yourself let us finish with the business case: In a 2017 experiment covered by the HBR, employees were forced to go on holiday and be completely offline (if they even contacted the office during the holiday they would not get paid for their holiday!). After the trial, managers rated employee productivity, creativity, and happiness before and after the forced holiday. The results speak for themselves: creativity surged 33%, happiness went up 25%, and productivity increased by 13%. 

So. Take. Christmas. Off.

Resist the temptation (a bit of prep will help)…

There is a double-edged sword to the neuroscience of downtime though. As we get this vital rest time and our brains start working away in the background, suddenly we get great ideas and solve niggling issues that we’ve been struggling with for weeks. It’s tempting then – typical entrepreneurial type – to want to dive into making it happen. Don’t be tempted. Just think how many more solutions will surface if you let the brain crack on with its downtime software. Instead, just have a notebook with you and jot down anything and everything that comes to mind without necessarily trying to make sense of it. That way you are capturing the goodness without disrupting the brains processing magic.

It’s also likely that on seeing long lost relatives over Christmas you’re more than likely to be asked how business is going. I’ve always struggled with this. Whether it’s going well or through a rough patch even answering gets you thinking in work mode. To avoid being pulled back to that headspace get your answer lined up in advance. On your last working day before Christmas, reflect on three things that have gone well recently with the business and use those as your stock answer to keep said relatives happy.

Take Christmas off – really off

If you’re in retail or e-commerce as an entrepreneur and have committed to that Boxing-Day sale, or similar, I appreciate your reality of off may be capped to two days so ignore the rest of this paragraph, but for everyone else – there is no excuse. We all know emails wind down, things quieten, and expectations lessen as everyone takes a collective sigh of relief. It’s the only time in the year that this happens, so make the most of it and be OFF. Let your brain work its magic.

When that little neg-head voice goes “oh why don’t you just check your emails quickly” flick him/her off your shoulder and pick up a good book, go for a winter walk, or hunt down a classic Christmas movie instead. Your brain, and your business, will thank you for it in the New Year.

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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