Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Man is Not a Machine!

Regular readers will be familiar with my constant battle between feeling lazy when I'm not writing a lot and recognising that much of writing is done through thinking - both consciously and subconsciously. So when I recently came across a magazine article on Be Excellent at Anything: Four Changes to Get More out of Work and Life by Tony Schwartz, Catherine McCarthy and Jean Gomes, I found one of the key concepts very appealing. The concept? That humans are not machines or computers; working a machine harder and for longer produces an increase in results, but not so for humans. Humans become exhausted and the quality of their work suffers - results decline.

So when I saw a copy of the book while browsing in WH Smith last week, I bought it. Note: I haven't read the whole book yet, so this post focuses on what I've learnt so far...

Humans don't run on electricity - they need periods of renewal.

Not only does this mean getting enough sleep at night, but taking time out during the day to meditate, nap, exercise, etc. Unfortunately, capitalism has led to people being treated as machines in many jobs (the few years I spent on a supermarket checkout springs to mind...), so it's difficult to implement if you have to work rigid hours with scheduled breaks. Fortunately, most writers make their own hours and can ensure that they take time out for re-energising activities.

90 minutes is the maximum amount of time that humans can focus on working hard without the quality of their work decreasing.

Remember teachers advising you to plan breaks when making revision timetables? This is the reason. If you keep concentrating for longer than 90 minutes, you will feel exhausted and your work will suffer. Mistakes will creep in. However, if you stop and re-energise by taking a power nap, grabbing a nutritious meal and/or going for a walk, you will be ready for another period of intense work.

So taking time 'out' during your working day actually increases the quality of your work.

And quantity, if you measure this in anything other than time. You don't need to feel guilty! I suppose I instinctively knew this already, but it's great to see confirmation. The book refers to many scientific studies demonstrating its points, to which I responded with many an 'a-ha!'. It also explains why I can sit at the computer for hours, stuck on part of a story, only to find the solution as soon as I hop in the shower!

So there you have it: if you can take the time to re-energise during your working day (without getting fired), you should. And this advice is particularly relevant for writers, since the nature of writing seems to necessitate intense periods of thinking/getting words on paper or screen, broken up with time to ponder/muse/watch the daisies grow.


  1. I agree absolutely with this. I get mammoth Eureka moments first thing in the morning, when I'm all relaxed and not over-thinking. Inspiration comes when I'm driving, cooking, chatting, cleaning out the chickens.
    I one had a job in Debenhams and they provided lovely reclining chairs for sleeping during the lunch hour. It's a very good idea. Everyone needs time to relax and switch off. No one can push themselves past their body/mind's limits and still expect good results.
    Many thanks Hayley. We should all take heed of this advice.

  2. Good advice. I can often stuggle and struggle to turn out a paragraph or figure out a story ending, but then the answer comes to me when I am walking to work.

    I have always fancied working at Debenhams, and after Joanna's comment I may have to apply!

  3. Thank you, Joanna and Joanne :-)

    I'm not jealous enough to go back to working in retail, but Debenhams does sound good!

  4. I had one job where I kept going to the bathroom just to give myself a mental break. People must have thought I had a bladder problem. :)

    Running helps me when I'm stuck with something writing related.

  5. So true! We need to have breaks - our brains really like doing a variety of things. Keeping on with the same thing all the time is exhausting!

  6. Thanks, Stina and Jemi :-)

    I have to admit that I spend too many breaks playing games on the internet rather than exercising or relaxing... Bad habits!