Less than 1% of people are living according to the principles/science described herein. However, I’m confident that if you apply these recovery principles to your life, you’ll live a more engaged, meaningful, and productive life.
Being busy and being productive are far from the same thing. Most people are trying to do too much. The desire to ‘keep up’ has them doing more, living less, and deceiving themselves into believing they’ve actually made progress.
True growth and success are always sustainable. It’s not a short sprint with an inevitable physical, mental, and emotional crash. All goals are means, not ends. Each succeeding stage of your progression should clearly build one-upon-another, leaving you stronger and more able, not weaker and permanently damaged.
In order to do this, you must properly ‘recover’ from the following things, on a daily basis:
- Being awake
Unless you adequately recover in these areas, your life is a mess. Moreover, by adequately recovering, you’ll be empowered to more fully engage in these activities. Recovery is essential to success in all areas of life.
For the rest of this article, I’ll detail the scientific findings and applications related to proper recovery.
1. Recover from Work
‘Overcommitment’ is a heavily studied concept in psychology. It happens when you have inflated perceptions of work demands, and when you see your own ability to handle those demands as far superior to your ‘less involved’ colleagues. For most, this perception is a ‘distortion’ which prevents you from accurately making a cost-benefit analysis of work behaviors.
The following questions come from a psychological measure assessing overcommitment. On a scale from one (low commitment) to four (high overcommitment), how would you rate yourself on the following questions?
- I get easily overwhelmed by time pressures at work.
- As soon as I get up in the morning, I start thinking about work problems.
- When I get home, I can easily relax and ‘switch off’ work.
- People close to me say I sacrifice too much for my job.
- Work rarely lets me go, it is still on my mind when I go to bed.
- If I postpone something that I was supposed to do today, I’ll have trouble sleeping at night.
Although most people are finding it difficult to ‘unplug’ from work, recent science in the field of Occupational Health Psychology is showing how essential it is to unplug, daily.
This article is about setting proper and healthy boundaries/constraints upon yourself. Unless you do, you are not living a sustainable lifestyle. Unless you create healthy boundaries—your work, health, and relationships are being compromised. For instance, research in several fields have found that recovery from work is a necessity for staying energetic, engaged, and healthy when facing job demands.
‘Recovery’ is the process of reducing or eliminating physical and psychological strain/stress caused by work. One particular recovery strategy that is getting lots of attention in recent research is called ‘psychological detachment from work.’ True psychological detachment occurs when you completely refrain from work-related activities and thoughts during non-work time.
Without question, work in a global environment is highly competitive, and thus highly stressful and demanding. Consequently, the stresses of today’s work—which create negative emotions, negative physical symptoms, and psychological impairments—are often fully-consuming, which make it very difficult to psychologically detach.
Proper detachment/recovery from work is essential for physical and psychological health, in addition to engaged and productive work. Yet, few people do it. Most people are always available to their email and work. Millennials are the worst, often wearing the openness to work ‘whenever’ as a badge of honor. It’s not a badge of honor.
Research has found that people who psychologically detach from work experience:
- Less work-related fatigue and procrastination.
- Far greater engagement at work, which is defined as vigor, dedication, and absorption (i.e. ‘flow’).
- Greater work-life balance, which directly relates to quality of life.
- Greater marital satisfaction.
- Greater mental health.
Interestingly, other research shows that when a parent has irregular work hours, there can be devastating effects on the development and well-being of their children. These problems are compounded when the parent has depressive symptoms, low-quality parenting, reduced child-parent interaction and closeness, and a less supportive home environment.
Again, the likelihood of experiencing some forms of depression are dramatically increased if you don’t properly detach from work. Furthermore, if you don’t properly ‘unplug,’ you’ll lack engagement while at home. Put more directly, you’ll be distracted and burned-out. As a result, you probably won’t have quality interactions or closeness with your kids, spouse, or friends. It’s a vicious cycle.
In his book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be, Dr. Marshall Goldsmith explains that people who are successful in their work are often content being ‘unsuccessful’ in the other areas of their lives—particularly their relationships. In other words, most people are okay with being mediocre spouses, parents and friends, but are not okay with being mediocre in their jobs.
When you’re at work, be fully absorbed. When it’s time to call it a day, completely detach yourself from work and become absorbed in the other areas of your life. If you don’t detach, you’ll never fully be present or engaged at work or at home. You’ll be under constant strain, even if minimally. Your sleep will suffer. Your relationships will be shallow. Your life will not be happy.
The belief that you must work 8+ hours a day reflects an outdated mental model. The nine–five work schedule was developed during the industrial revolution for factory workers, whose work was mostly physical labor. Yet, most of today’s work is mental, not physical. According to psychologist, Ron Friedman:
Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well.
Research has shown that addiction to stimulants, such as caffeine, is largely the product of the nine–five work shift. Mental work is far more taxing than physical work. Again, you only have a few (probably less than five) really good hours each day. But if you focused more on recovery, the energy you would put into various responsibilities would improve ten fold. This would allow you far more time to rest and enjoy life.
Rather than spending eight–ten hours in low-focused and high-distracted work, spend three–five hours in engaged and absorbed flow. You’ll get more done in one day than most people get done in a week. You’ll also be able to more fully engage in the other essential areas of your life.
In order to do this, you must set clear boundaries and expectations with yourself and others. If you set things up clearly, people at work will respect that when you’re away, you’re not available except in case of emergency.
2. Recover from Technology
In our technology-overwhelmed world, the only way to properly recover from work is to set healthy boundaries on your technology. For instance, a recent study found that constant smartphone use stops people from properly recovering from work (and life). In a sense, people are always ‘on’ to distraction and connection. They never disconnect. Most people keep their smartphones on them constantly, and admit to experiencing withdrawals if they don’t have their smartphone for more than a few hours.
In the study, the experimental group, who became more conscious of their smartphone use and took adequate breaks from it, were able to experience psychological detachment from work, relaxation, and mastery.
Smartphone addiction is reflected in impulsive behavior, withdrawals, and impaired functioning. One study found that the average person checks their smartphone over 85 times per day, and spends more than five hours browsing the web and using apps. People check their phones more than twice as much as they think they do. Thus, more often than not, people are unconsciously triggered to check their smartphones.
This lack of consciousness is reflected in all other areas of most people’s lives—as we are holistic systems. No one component of your life can be viewed in isolation. If you spend several hours unconsciously using technology, how could you expect to be fully engaged in your work and relationships?
Here are some of the outcomes of unhealthy smartphone use:
- Increased depression, anxiety, and ‘daytime dysfunction.’
- Decreased sleep quality.
- Decreased psychological and emotional well-being.
- Decreased emotional intelligence (this study also found that if parents are reflective and thoughtful about smartphone use, their children experience less detrimental effects).
- Increased stress (which lowers life satisfaction) and decreased academic performance (which lowers life satisfaction) among students.
One study found negative effects of using laptops and cellphones within one–two hours of going to sleep. Specifically, the study found that individuals who stopped staring at screens one–two hours before sleep:
- Experienced substantially higher sleep quality and less sleep ‘disturbances’.
- Increased ability to maintain enthusiasm to get things done while working.
The authors/researchers of the study concluded simply by saying:
We should restrict the use of mobiles and laptops before sleep for sound mind and good health.
According to Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of, You Can’t Be Serious! Putting Humor to Work, highly successful people such as former US President, Barack Obama and Bill Gates are known to read for at least a half hour before bed. According to Kerr, the last thing most successful people do before bed is work (often displayed by checking our email).
Interestingly, other research has found that if you associate your bed with work, it’ll be harder to relax there. In order to sleep well, keep your bedroom as a place for sleep. The triggers in your environment directly influence your behavior. If you have a TV in your bedroom, your sleep will suffer. If you use your smartphone before bed, your sleep will suffer. If you check your smartphone immediately upon waking up, your engagement in the rest of your day will suffer.
Like work, proper boundaries must be set on technology–particularly smartphones–if you want to live an optimal life. You need to recover from your technology and smartphones.
Rather than checking your smartphone, do something productive with your morning, which for most people is the best time for creative output and learning. Many of the world’s most successful people avoid checking their cellphone, email, or social media for several hours after they’ve woken up. Instead, they engage in creative work, physical exercise, strategic planning and goal setting, and spending time with loved ones.
Furthermore, boundaries on technology should happen after work as well. If you have your smartphone on your person, you’ll unconsciously check it, even if you have the best of intentions. The unhealthy triggers are too strong.
Instead, recover from your technology. Set a time at night when you’re done with your smartphone, social media, and email. Create other boundaries on technology so you can more deeply engage in your relationships and other areas of life in the real world.
Here’s some solid benchmarks which you can use to adjust your usage:
- Best practice to avoid technology for the first 30–60 minutes of waking.
- Best practice to avoid mindless internet use as well as email and social media (i.e., inputs) for first two–four hours of waking.
- Best practice to avoid smartphone use and internet for one–two hours before sleep.
- Best practice to keep your smartphone away from your person when you’re with other people (leave it in your car, at home, or in a different room).
Get in the habit of not always having your cellphone with you, especially while you’re at home with your family. Very few people experience the gift of your full and uninhibited attention. Give them that gift. Keep your smartphone away from yourself as much as you possibly can. Your whole life will get better.
3. Recover from People
Time alone is really essential, to get away and contemplate, think, and wonder.—Jim Rohn
Just as you need recovery from work and technology, you also need some healthy recovery from people. Even if it’s just 20–60 minutes per day, you need some time to think, reflect, ponder, and plan.
In her book, The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Amy Wilkinson details her interviews with some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. She found that many of them purposely schedule time to be by themselves.
For example, billionaire Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, drives a fake 40-minute commute to work, despite living five minutes from work. She does this to give herself time to think. Other people literally schedule 60-minute ‘power-hours’ in the middle of their day to think creatively and strategically.
This isn’t about being an introvert or extrovert. We all need time with people and time alone. If you’re not getting at least 20–30 minutes of non-distracted alone time to think big picture, or even specific, you’re not living optimally.
4. Recover from Food
Eat less food and you’ll get more done.—Robin Sharma
Your body and mind need to recover from food. If not daily, you should be fasting from food for at least 18–24 hours on a weekly basis.
When you fast, or ‘recover’ from food, your body is given the opportunity to repair and rebuild itself, rather than constantly digesting. As will be shown, there are a ridiculous number of benefits to regular fasting.
Medically, fasting has been found to rapidly dissipate the craving for nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and other drugs. Neuro-chemically, fasting increases levels of catecholamines—such as dopamine—which elevates your happiness and confidence, while reducing your anxiety. Fasting actually increases your number of brain cells.
Here is a short list of some of the scientifically backed cognitive benefits of fasting:
- Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy (e.g. ‘self-eating,’), which is how cells recycle waste material, down regulate wasteful processes, and repair themselves. Brain health is dependent on neuronal autophagy. Another study shows that interference of neuronal autophagy prompts neuro-degeneration. Simply put, without the process of autophagy, brains neither develop properly nor function optimally.
- Fasting increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that interacts with neurons in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain (the parts of the brain that regulate memory, learning, and higher cognitive function—uniquely human stuff). BDNF helps existing neurons survive, while stimulating the growth of new neurons and the development of neuro-synaptic connectivity. Low levels of BDNF are linked to Alzheimer’s, memory loss, and cognitive impairment.
- Evidence suggests that low BDNF is related to depression. Indeed, antidepressants increase BDNF levels. Thus, many doctors believe fasting can reduce depression.
- Fasting reduces the likelihood of having a stroke.
- Fasting reduces the oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and cognitive decline that normally results from brain trauma. Research has found that a 24 hour (but not a 48 hour) fast was neuro-protective against trauma to the brain like a concussion.
- Fasting reduces cognitive stressors that bring about aging, cognitive decline, and chronic diseases.
- Fasting reduces your risk of cancer.
- Fasting increases your longevity and lifespan.
- Fasting enhances learning and memory.
- Fasting elevates your ability to focus and concentrate.
If you’ve fasted before, you can attest to the radical mental benefits of fasting. If you haven’t, you could try starting a regular practice of fasting. Over a period of time, you’ll likely be startled by the cognitive results.
Other scientifically backed health benefits of fasting including:
- Fasting can reverse binge eating disorders, and help those who find it difficult to establish a correct eating pattern due to work and other priorities.
- Fasting can clear your skin from acne, allowing you to have a healthy vibrant glow.
- Fasting ‘reboots’ your immune system from free radical damage, regulating inflammatory conditions in the body and killing-off cancer cell formation.
- Fasting improves blood pressure levels.
- Fasting improves cholesterol levels.
- Type 2 diabetes has become commonplace in our unhealthy culture. Fasting has been shown to strongly support insulin resistance and lead to an impressive reduction in blood sugar levels.
- Similarly, blood levels of insulin drop significantly, which facilitates fat burning.
- The blood levels of growth hormone may increase as much as five times. Higher levels of growth hormone assist fat burning and muscle gain, and have numerous other benefits.
Not only will your body functioning improve as you fast, but your decision-making, regarding your health and fitness, will improve. Research has found that age-related declines in cognitive and motor abilities (such as physical balance) can be reduced by fasting. Research has found that a 16-hour fast can reset your sleep cycle. Other research has found that fasting can improve the overall quality of your sleep. Interesting research at Yale has found that being on an empty stomach helps you think and focus better. Hence, many people, such as Malcolm Gladwell, purposefully skip breakfast so they can better focus on their creative work.
Fasting stabilizes your emotions. This happens by detaching from the emotional dependence on food, in addition to removing over-stimulating foods like caffeine, processed sugars, recreational drugs, tobacco and trans-fatty acids—all of which negatively affect our emotions. Research confirms that being in a fasted state improves focus, memory, and ability to comprehend information. Put most simply, fasting improves brain efficiency and effectiveness.
How to Fast
Try eating an early dinner or late breakfast. It may be difficult at first, as you likely have an emotional, not physical, dependency on food. The idea is to eat within a six–ten hour window each day, and allow yourself the rest of the day to recover. If you eat meals high in protein and healthy fats, you’ll be satiated, or full, for several more hours than if you’re eating carbs; particularly sugary carbs. If daily doesn’t make sense, try a weekly fast, where you fast for 18–24 hours on a particular day.
5. Recover from Fitness
It may sound strange, but many people exercise too much. Like the other areas of their lives, most people seem to prefer quantity over quality. Optimal fitness requires lots of good sleep and recovery. Most professional athletes get way more sleep than you’d expect. They also take many rest-days to allow for full recovery, so that when they do train, they can full-engage. To get the best results in your fitness, research has found that shorter, but more intensive exercise, is more effective than longer, drawn-out exercise. The concept is simple: Intensive activity, followed by high-quality rest and recovery.
This is true of life, technology, food, and all other areas of life. To quote Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach,
Wherever you are, make sure you’re there.
This whole post is about being present and engaged in life. In order to do this, you must focus on quality, not quantity. Additionally, you’ll need to more fully prioritize the essentials in your life.
For instance, entropy is a concept in physics explaining how everything gradually declines into a state of disorder, unless you invoke specific interventions. For example, if you don’t set proper boundaries on your time, there will be a million things creeping in and slowing you down.
If you’re serious about living successfully, you must consider the effects of entropy on your life. All distractions are a reflection of entropy, which will slow you down. If you want your life to be aerodynamic, productive, and purposeful, you’ll need to remove as many forms of entropy as you can. You do this by prioritizing the essentials and removing everything else.
6. Recover from Being Awake
Perhaps even more fundamental than the food you eat is sleep. Similar to food, without sleep, you will die. Sleep is essential. If you are not prioritizing sleep, your life is a mess. 100%. Yet, millions of people do not sleep enough and experience insane problems as a result.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) conducted surveys revealing that at least 40 million Americans suffer from over 70 different sleep disorders. Not only that, 60 percent of adults, and 69 percent of children experience one or more sleep problems a few nights or more during a week.
In addition, more than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness, severe enough to interfere with their daily activities, at least a few days each month—with 20 percent reporting ‘problem sleepiness’ a few days a week or more.
On the flipside, getting a healthy amount of sleep is linked to:
- Increased memory
- Longer life
- Decreased inflammation
- Increased creativity
- Increased attention and focus
- Decreased fat and increased muscle mass with exercise
- Lower stress
- Decreased dependence on stimulants like caffeine
- Decreased risk of getting into accidents
- Decreased risk of depression
- And tons more… google it.
In a non-sustainable way, people try to compensate for their unhealthy sleep by using stimulants, such as caffeine. Entropy. Your body, mind, work, relationships, and all other areas will suffer if you try to compensate for lack of healthy sleep.
Research has found that lack of quality sleep relates to lack of quality of life. It’s really that simple. Your body needs to recover every day. When you’re asleep, your brain and body restore themselves—allowing you to think and function better while you’re awake!
If you want to live an optimal life, you need to RECOVER. You need to recover from work, technology, people, food, fitness and being awake. If you’re fine being tired, stressed, and sub-optimal, don’t worry about recovery. Continue to focus on quantity over quality. But unless you recover, you will never truly live.