Sometimes, it is very essential to know how to put your head down and work hard. In this increasingly globalized economy, in which we are competing not only with each other but also with human-replacing technologies, those that embody grit and grind are going to have an undeniable edge.
But, that is not just half the battle. If we ceaselessly push ourselves without ever taking a break, the quality of our work is going to suffer in the short term. And, in the long term, we will be liable to burnout. In order to become valuable and sustainable, hard work has to be followed by rest and recovery.
There is no shortage of products which promise us to help us “hack” our way to sustainable peak performance.
Unluckily, every quick fix which you have ever evaluated has one thing in common: they all fade very quickly. The vast majority of scientific discovery and evidence suggests that the best way to grow a capability – no matter if it is learning an instrument, running a marathon, as well as improving at public speaking – is to give yourself an intense challenge, follow it up with a time of rest and recovery, and then rinse and repeat, only this time, starting with a slightly more demanding challenge.
In exercise science, this ebb and flow which is between challenge and recovery are referred to as progressive overload. You should reflect for a moment on what it takes to make a muscle, like your biceps, stronger. If you try lifting weights which are too heavy, you will probably not make it past one repetition. Even if you do, you will be liable to hurt yourself along the way. However, lift too light a weight, and you will not see any results. Your biceps simply will not grow.
You have to find the Goldilocks weight: it is an amount which you can manage, but barely. It is going to leave you exhausted and fatigues – but not injured – by the time you have finished your workout. Even so, if you are lifting on a daily basis, multiple times a day, without much rest in between, you are almost certainly going to burn out. But, if you hardly ever make it to the gym and you fail to regularly push your limits, you will get much stronger, either. The key to strengthening your biceps muscle is balancing the right amount of stress with the right amount of rest, and doing that consistently over a period.
Stress + rest = growth.
The same premise holds true far beyond athletics. For example, a large body of the research paper on creativity shows that “aha” moments tend to follow a common pattern. Immersion comes first, which is an intense period of throwing yourself completely into what you are working on. Incubation comes after it, wherein you step away from your work and permit your mind to wander. And before you even know it, you get insight.
This is an explanation of why so many people report having breakthrough ideas in the shower, during or immediately following an exercise, upon first waking from sleep or while on vacation. It is only after they have “stressed” their mind and then permitted it to “rest” that insight happens.
Some researchers from the University of York and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found that although we spend most of our waking hours in effortful thought, over 40% of our creative ideas come in the time when we are taking a break. Lin Manuel Miranda, MacArthur genius, as well as the creator of the blockbuster musical Hamilton, says:
A good idea does not come when you are tired doing a million things. The good idea comes when you are in the time of rest. It may come in the shower; it may come when you are doodling or playing trains with your son. It is when your mind is on the other side of things.
Developing a new cognitive skill also involves a similar premise.
According to one research, the best way of learning a skill is to work very hard with deep focus, even to struggle for a bit, and then follow that hard work with rest. For instance, in one study of university-level physics students published in the journal Cognition and Institution, researchers found that the most profound learning happened only when students reached an impasse and were forced to wrestle with a problem. If they were answered quickly, they did not retain nearly as much information.
Cognitive scientists usually call this “productive failure” or the notion that “skills come from struggle.” Of course, if you are struggling constantly and you always work to the max of your abilities, eventually you will not get tired and burn out. Once again, “stress” can be beneficial, but only when it is followed by rest.
The ebb-and-flow theory of stress and rest can even be applied to how an organization grows.
Take on too much too soon, without permitting enough time to reflect and adapt, and the organization will probably struggle – maybe even fail. But, it the same organization never takes on some new challenges nor consciously evolves, it is going to get beaten out by the competition as well. The same principle can be applied to personal relationships too. It can be thrilling, as well as fulfilling to take on some new challenges with someone, but doing too much too soon without any time for reflection is a guaranteed recipe for trouble.
The way to grow a muscle successfully, whether if it is a physical, as well as psychological or organizational one, and to sustain high performance, is not to push ourselves constantly, nor is it searching for some new “hack” which promises quick results. We simply have to stick to a cycle of hard work which is followed by rest and recovery. This probably does not sound fancy, and it does take some time, but it is what actually gets results.