Stop right now, where you are, and give yourself a checkup. As you read these lines, are you scowling? Do you feel a strain between the eyes? Are you sitting relaxed in your chair? Or are you hunching up your shoulders? Are the muscles of your face tense? So go the questions in “What Makes You Tired – and What You Can Do About It,” a section in Dale Carnegie’s classic book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.
Recently I have been thinking about how to work more restfully. So I found and pulled out the book a few days ago because I recalled from years ago that there was something in it about resting while also working, and I wanted to revisit that.
Most info about rest at work focuses on taking breaks, getting enough rest around focused work, or managing stress. But I am interested in resting while working productively. Working restfully and efficiently to increase - not decrease - energy and quality output.
I keep thinking about how, when riding a bike uphill, I always find it more productive to relax into the push rather than strain into it all tensed up, which sucks way more energy. Relaxing into a hard physical effort seems like a contradiction, and I find it tricky to remember to do, but it really does make pedalling uphill so much easier. It is more efficient.
Relaxing while working prevents fatigue. I am all for reducing mental and physical fatigue, and increasing energy, productivity, and focus!
So how can we do that in our everyday work, much of which is sedentary mental work? There are physical, environmental, and mental techniques we can use.
“How do you relax? Do you start with your mind or do you start with your nerves? You don’t start with either,” Carnegie writes, “You always begin to relax with your muscles!”
Apparently our eyes are so important to relieving tension because they consume a quarter of all nervous energies of the body. So he suggests starting with relaxing our gaze, stop straining, and ask our eyes to let go… let go… let go.
Then do the same with our jaw, shoulders, face, neck, and rest of the body. Start to be conscious of the tension, and, with kindness, ask your muscles to let it go. Gentle release.
Carnegie offers four suggestions:
1. Relax in odd moments. Let your body go limp. Close your eyes.
2. Work in a comfortable position. Tensions on the body produce aching shoulders and fatigue.
3. Check yourself four or five times a day, and say to yourself, “And I making my work harder than it actually is? Am I using muscles that have nothing to do with the work I am doing?
4. Test yourself at the end of the day, by asking yourself, “just how tired am I? If I am tired, it is not because of the mental work I have done, but because of the [physical] way I have done it.
Additional techniques include belly-breathing, which I find enormously helpful. Raising your arms. Try twiddling (rotating) your thumbs, and giving yourself an ear massage.
Also, it may sound obvious, but notice what you wear - do you find it constricting or restrictive at all? If so, chances are that you are not able to relax very well while working in that clothing. Perhaps there are alternatives that are appropriate to the environment you work in. I love suits made of slightly stretchy fabric. A friend of mind wears very stylish loose dresses to work, and she says are like wearing pyjamas they are so comfy.
One final note: watch how caffeine affects your mind - most of us don’t notice, but we are much more relaxed throughout the day without caffeine after the first (often badly-needed) shot of coffee or black tea in the morning.
Listen to calm music. Most people would be surprised that I like to work to ambient and triphop electronic music. I find it both restful and propulsive - it helps me get into a groove, a flow. Yours might be classical music or rhythmic hip hop. Since I cannot play music in my office without disturbing others, and I need to hear what is going on around me, I either just place an earbud in one ear, or I place them in both ears with the volume low enough to hear when someone is speaking in my direction.
Organize your work area. Clear your computer desktop and physical desktop of all documents and files except ones that are related to task you are working on right now. Clear away all clutter and garbage from the room you are in. This reduces distraction, stress, and the feeling of mental clutter too.
Is there a spot where you can sit or stand near natural light as you work?
Find the humour in what you are doing. Where’s the funny, goofy, or absurd?
Relax into focus, like relaxing into riding uphill. This means not trying to multitask, not trying to remember or keep an eye on something else at the same time, not allowing interruptions, and really getting into a physically-relaxed mentally-productive flow.
Surrounding yourself with images and smells that you find relaxing makes a big improvement to mental state. A landscape photo on your computer desktop, a fresh flower, or maybe calming aromatherapy oil – whatever works for you.
Visualize something that you find restful or heart-filling. The Mayo Clinic advises, “To relax using visualization, try to incorporate as many senses as you can, including smell, sight, sound and touch. If you imagine relaxing at the ocean, for instance, think about the smell of salt water, the sound of crashing waves and the warmth of the sun on your body.
The Mayo Clinic says, “When faced with numerous responsibilities and tasks or the demands of an illness, relaxation techniques may not be a priority in your life. But that means you might miss out on the health benefits of relaxation. Practicing relaxation techniques can have many benefits, including: Slowing heart rate, Lowering blood pressure, Slowing your breathing rate, Improving digestion, Maintaining normal blood sugar levels, Reducing activity of stress hormones, Increasing blood flow to major muscles, Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain, Improving concentration and mood, Improving sleep quality, Lowering fatigue, Reducing anger and frustration, and Boosting confidence to handle problems.