The Art of Resting the Mind

February 1, 2010

If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my axe.


A few years ago an executive told me a joke.  He said that his division would run better and the people he works with would be more productive if everyone was high on marijuana versus multitasking.  A quizzical look and hesitant laugh on my part led him to clarify that it wasn’t a joke.  He handed me a printed copy of an article that stated:


In 80 clinical trials, Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College London University, monitored the IQ of workers throughout the day. He found the IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points — the equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana.

“This is a very real and widespread phenomenon,” Wilson said. “We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness.”


Even as I am writing this, my iPhone is alerting me of a text message, my email alarm is sounding and I’m answering yet another ‘just a quick question’ from a colleague.  We are bombarded with stimuli and distraction is the norm.  The question that begs to be answered is ‘How is this affecting my quality of work?”

We have all tried to chop vegetables with a dull knife.  Taking a few minutes to sharpen our tools is a given.  It requires less effort, makes the task easier and takes less time. However most of us are knowledge workers these days and our main tool is our brain.  So why don’t we take the time to sharpen our minds?

Which brings me back to Cebu, Philippines.  Uncharacteristically, I booked an email and phone free long weekend.  I brought nothing but fiction novels and fun magazines, spent days lying on the beach, taking a sailing lesson, relaxing at the spa and just being. I read once that to be truly successful in life and work you need to master the art of resting the mind.  I agree, it is an art and far more difficult to unplug and be at peace with silence and your own thoughts than you would think.

When I returned to work on Monday I was fascinated with the level of creativity and clarity with which I approached my work.  I surprised myself and the energy I gained from this insight exuded a passion that was contagious to my colleagues.  I was worried that taking three days off would create backlogs and put me behind in my work.  Instead, I was relaxed, happy and better able to tackle projects.

Lesson three: You need to go slow to go fast.  When you rush, push through exhaustion, make snap decisions to just ‘get things done’ and juggle too many things at once you make mistakes.  Clear your mind, approach things systematically and save time, money and effort in the process.  Spend just as much, if not more, time sharpening your mind as plowing through tasks – you will be happier and able to do better both at work and in life.