Go for a Walk

person walking on a path amongst fallen leaves

For some time I have taken a twenty to thirty minute walk each morning. Before I started doing this, I often took similar length walks during my lunch break at work, walking around the building by myself or with a co-worker. While I don’t remember when I started doing this, I do know why I do this. The reason is simple – it boosts my productivity.

On these walks, I don’t look at my phone. And I don’t try to work through a challenge I may be having. In fact, quite the opposite. I try to clear my mind, to simply be present in the moment and enjoy my immediate surroundings. It’s kind of a mini vacation from my work and troubles. So, how does this boost my productivity? The time away refreshes me in much the same way a vacation does, despite the small amount of time “away”. I learned about the remarkable power of down time years ago while programming in my own database consulting company.

In addition to talking with clients and potential customers, each day I worked at a computer, writing database programs. It wasn’t that unusual during a session of programming to run into a problem that did not yield immediately. As I continued to try to troubleshoot and unravel the issue, I would get more and more frustrated and more and more stubborn. I was dedicated to finding a solution! Sometimes I would spend all day on a problem, not even taking a break to eat lunch. Eventually, I would have to come out of my office for dinner, grumpy and unsuccessful. It took a while, but slowly I would let go of the problem as I ate and spent time with my family. The next morning as I was getting ready for work, showering or shaving, I almost always got a flash of inspiration for how to proceed. It wasn’t always the ultimate solution, but I was no longer stuck. I had a direction to go in that moved me closer to resolution.

Eventually, I began to see this pattern repeated. So, I stopped beating on problems when I got stuck, angry, and frustrated. I learned that the most productive thing was to step away from the problem and do something unrelated, often some sort of rest or play. As a result, I used the feeling of being stuck as a trigger to let go and move on to something else. Over time, instead of waiting for a problem to take advantage of this phenomenon, I began to build in quiet time and adequate rest in order to work as optimally as possible.

Modern research on sleep, rest, and play has shown that the current fascination with “working hard” and bragging about how little time we have or how little sleep we get is actually counterproductive. Our brains require rest and open-ended play in order to process the inputs we receive every hour of every day (Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang).

So don’t wait until you are so frustrated with a problem that you are swearing up a storm or throwing things across the room. Be proactive and take time out to rest and play. And if you have already crossed the line into anger and frustration, go for a walk. It’s likely the most productive thing you can do.

You Can’t Break It, So Play With It!

Kids play with tablet

I’m referring to your smartphone. Or your tablet. Or your laptop. Or that latest program or app you installed or updated. You can’t break it simply by using it. In fact, modern software is designed for you to learn by using it. And it is pretty easy to do. Don’t believe me? Give whatever you are struggling with to anyone between the ages of two and twelve. They won’t ask you how to use it or look for a help file or video. They will just dive in and start using it. And you can, too. You may feel like you can’t or that it is simply too difficult. And that may in fact be part of why you can’t. You’ve “psyched” yourself out and frozen your natural playfulness. Here is a story from my family to illustrate my point (sorry, Dad!).

My dad is an incredible mechanic. The smell of oil and gasoline surrounded him when he came home from work. Every time I get my car serviced is a trip down memory lane. The last place my dad worked before he retired, he completely rebuilt a service truck. I mean he stripped it down to the frame and rebuilt it, improving each system on it. It was an incredible achievement of engineering. This brilliant man tells me that he just can’t get the computer. I lovingly tease him that it isn’t an inability but rather a lack of desire. You see, my dad loves to tinker with and build stuff – in the physical world, anything he can put his hands on, figure out how it works, and then make it better. Because computer software is a black box that he can’t see into or wrap his hands around, he has convinced himself that he can’t learn it. But we can all find a way out of our struggle struggle to learn if we decide to bring a sense of play to the experience.

Children have this innate desire to play and have fun. When kids are most focused on something they are enjoying, adults often mistake this for “getting serious” about something. For the child, they are just immersed in their world of play. As a toddler, I bet my dad sat on the floor playing with Tinker Toys/Lincoln Logs/Legos. His work as a mechanic was just an extension of what for him was play. And that childlike sense of play is the approach we all need in learning how to use our electronic doodads.

Here are some tips for turning that phone in your pocket (or other gadget) into a source of fun instead of frustration.

  • Treat your technology like a toy or a puzzle. Find something about it that you enjoy and play with it. Feel free to ask your family or friends for help.
  • Be patient with yourself. Few of us are very good at something the first time we do it. It takes time to learn. So be kind to yourself.
  • Share your victories. When you figure something out or discover something new, share it with someone close to you. Play is for enjoying and sharing with others.

Let me know how implementing these ideas helps you by leaving a note in the comments. And have fun!