I almost bought the contention – hook, line and sinker. Surely, if I couldn’t rearrange my schedule (repeatedly), I must be inflexible, rigid, resistant.
Forget the many years I spent wedded to the routines required to get kids up and to school, accomplish my own work, then deal with chauffeuring them here and there for various activities. Forget the fact that routine may have been my source of sanity in an otherwise overwhelming set of responsibilities. Forget that my “personal productivity rhythm” has led me to write early in the morning, followed by more analytical and interpersonal tasks as the day wears on.
The evening and night would generally allow for editing – which is creative but also a problem-solving skill – or for visually-based activities that feel, to me, as if they’re coming from a different part of my brain.
What if accepting a contention that I’m “inflexible” in scheduling my day (around peak performance) has nothing to do with my preferences or even commitments? What if it has everything to do with the way the brain functions effectively?
What Time of Day Does the Brain Work Best
I recall conversations years ago about being “a night person” or “a day person.” Clearly, the fact that some of us seem to be more energetic in the mornings (while others are night owls) would support this notion – as individuals, we may be wired (or conditioned) to gravitate toward certain times of day – for specific pursuits.
When I was in college, I considered myself a night person, frequently doing my best work (as I remember it) through the night. Consequently, I purposely scheduled as many afternoon classes as possible rather than those brutal 8:30 a.m. bells.
By the time I was in the swing of my corporate career, I was working with teams in France adn Benelux. I tended to rise very early in the morning (5 a.m. or earlier), which provided me thinking time (and writing time), and allowed me to share a significant portion of the work day with my European colleagues.
When I added motherhood to the mix, my schedule pushed me to rise at 3:00 a.m. or possibly four; admittedly, my mind was shot by ten or eleven at night.
So is there a time of day that is more productive for us, when it comes to certain activities? Is this a matter of conditioning – and re-establishing habits, which may take something on the order of 28 days? Is it preference? Is it “nature?” Or is the brain hardwired in some way, diffusing the argument that any of us are “inflexible” if we have difficulty fighting our productivity patterns that lead us to tackle creative tasks at certain times of day, problem-solving at others, and more mechanical mind-work when we’re more tired or distracted?
The Mind Needs a Rest
I recall seeing this in Scientific American – “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” and it was enlightening. The writer explores “cerebral congestion” and describes what it’s like:
… My eyes trace the contour of the same sentence two or three times, yet I fail to extract its meaning… getting through my ever growing list of stories to write and edit, e-mails to send and respond to, and documents to read now seems as futile as scaling a mountain that continuously thrusts new stone skyward. There is so much more to do—so much work I genuinely enjoy—but my brain is telling me to stop. It’s full. It needs some downtime.
The brain is full. Stuffed. It says, simply, stop.
Of course, the article also notes how little time off Americans get…
In contrast to the European Union, which mandates 20 days of paid vacation, the U.S. has no federal laws guaranteeing paid time off, sick leave or even breaks for national holidays.
It is further noted that our “brains are preoccupied with work much of the time” and this does not lead to increased productivity or innovation. And it’s not especially healthy, either. And shall we mention the very recent article on Forbes, that tells us why multi-tasking hurts our brains?
Flexibility and Spontaneity – Apples and Oranges?
Returning to the suggestion (accusation?) that I was inflexible, I concede that I am, at times, precisely that. Yet my desire to follow a schedule that feels smooth to my brain should not be deemed inflexibility. Moreover, I recognize that I was equating flexibility with spontaneity; if I was inflexible, then somehow, I was unable to drop everything and switch gears (and have some fun), which we might think of as spontaneity. But flexibility and spontaneity, as I consider further, are apples and oranges. Moreover, flexibility and adaptability are different as well.
I have – and can – adapt to other cultures. My stubborn streak (when I want to finish something I’m in the process of working on) has little to do with my ability to adapt to a new language, a new culture, or the personalities of a new group of people around me. My mind’s ability to adapt in those circumstances is not a wholesale reflection of my personality, which is tenacious when it comes to completing a task.
So why do we call each other inflexible – or even stubborn – when we’re immersed in a task and don’t want to stop? Isn’t that a judgment call? Aren’t we more hard-wired – not only in terms of personalities, but the brain’s preferred productive power – to keep to certain schedules?
As for spontaneity, I think back to my single mother juggling days. Dating (for example) always took a back seat to getting through the afternoon, the week, the month, the year… yet on rare occasions, I was capable of a spontaneous escape – bonjour, Paris! – and could make quick arrangements for my children. All it took was a deal on a flight, then hopping on a plane to see friends (or art), do a little writing, and pop back home a few days later. Spontaneous, n’est-ce pas?
The Mind’s Preferred Schedule
So which is it? Are we mindful of our schedules (and rhythms), or mindless about following them mechanically? Are we hard-wired? Can we rewire the brain – and our “comfortable” schedules?
Naturally, if we’re distracted by kids or phone calls or noisy traffic outside the office window, it may be harder to concentrate and the mind wanders. If it’s quieter (and we’re undisturbed) in the early morning or late at night, that may become our “me” time, our reading time, our writing time, our pleasurable and productive creative time.
Interestingly, this article explains that we’re more creative when we’re tired!
According to Fast Company:
…If you’re tired, your brain is not as good at filtering out distractions and focusing on a particular task. It’s also a lot less efficient at remembering connections between ideas or concepts. These are both good things when it comes to creative work, since this kind of work requires us to make new connections, be open to new ideas, and think in new ways. So a tired, fuzzy brain is of much more use to us when working on creative projects.
Great! Maybe this confirms my experience of creativity when not fully awake, and likewise – very late at night again.
Schedules, Relationships, Flexibility
So when my man friend mentions (very gently) “you’re a little bit inflexible” when referring to my schedule, I genuinely give it thought. And though his work life has more built-in time off, I feel inflexible. Worse, I feel like a stick in the mud. I have a routine and it works for me; I need my routine to earn a living; I get defensive when I feel I must justify any of it. In particular, the fact that I am “unwilling” to sacrifice some small measure of morning writing. But perhaps this isn’t an indulgence, but a necessity – for me.
I nonetheless tell myself I need to shake things up, be more open to rearrange – for my guy, and also for clients that want me at specific hours of the day. And then the the light turns on – not only the need for the brain to have its downtime, but the reality that at certain times of day it feels more natural for the brain to process effectively. And I tell myself this isn’t a “choice” or a matter of willingness to compromise in a relationship.
What if it truly is the way the brain is hard-wired; the way my brain is programmed to function best?
We hear about rewiring our attitude. Positive attitude, that is. And we buy it, right? We know that chronic stress rewires our brains – in a bad way.
Many believe we can retrain our brains in other ways, and I’m convinced of it. Yet the fact that I write (often) straight out of dream certainly indicates that exploiting early morning hours for creativity makes sense. The fact that I resolve technical (client) challenges in dream, then note them in the morning, work through the mechanics during the day, and find more creativity (editing) at night also seems logical – to me.
Writing Down the Bones
I think of the way I’ve always written, including using exercise (walking) to slide straight into creative thought, a trick that works at any time of day. I consider “first thoughts waking,” that the fabulous Natalie Goldberg refers to in “Writing Down the Bones,” and accordingly, that is the schedule that I am most reluctant to sacrifice.
The fact that I have been in this rhythm (of writing) for more than 25 years doesn’t strike me as a matter of choice or even a busy schedule, but rather, a natural progression that suits my cycles of productivity and creativity, and likely also corresponds to how much I sleep, when I eat, when I’m less stressed (or distracted), and so on.
What if this is by most natural, most productive pattern? What if it’s logical considering quiet periods and busy periods, and my own hard-wiring? What if it conforms to optimal times for the brain’s creativity? Is the judgment of inflexibility is utterly unfounded?
Sure, we can require someone to change their habits, and possibly over considerable time we can reconfigure our productivity and our mindful resting. But certainly not overnight. And certainly not in response to a request for additional flexibility in the schedule or more scheduling compromise.
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