Monday, July 16, 2007

Genius Sleep

Henry Ford was a real stickler for efficiency. It was his passion. After all, he paid some of the highest wages in the nation and he wanted to get his money’s worth.

One day, Henry Ford hired an efficiency expert to examine his business, to see if the expert could find people who were unproductive, or find ways to make Mr. Ford’s automobile processes more efficient. This expert spent days looking around and watching people.

Legend has it that Henry Ford was curious about what the expert was discovering, so he asked him if he had found anything yet. The expert replied,

“Yes, I have found someone who is extremely unproductive. All he seems to do is lean back in his chair with his feet up on the desk. I have never seen him do anything else. I think you should fire him right away.”

Henry Ford responded by saying, “Oh no, you cannot fire him. He is one of my most productive employees. He once came up with an idea which has saved me a fortune. And as I recall, he came up with that great idea seated just as you have described.”

Businesses thrive on great ideas. If you can come up with the best ideas and then find a way to capitalize on them, you stand a high likelihood of achieving greatness. This is particularly true in strategy, where big ideas can make all the difference.

Often times, the best ideas come out of situations which at first can seem unproductive. Like that employee of Henry Ford, sometimes you need to kick back and relax in order to open your mind up to great possibilities. It may look like laziness, when in fact it is just a method to prepare the mind.

Any strategic planning process, or for that matter any important process, which does not allow time for kicking back and relaxing, is a process which will probably not achieve the optimal idea output. One needs to factor in “down time” as part of the process.

We live in a world where busyness is not only expected, but expected at multiples levels at the same time. Laziness is now defined as not multi-tasking at least three things at the same time. With modern technology, it is almost impossible to escape work. It follows you wherever you go.

I read recently of a new trend, called work-dating. Couples will get together for a great meal, usually eating in at one of the couple’s homes. After the meal, each one pulls out their laptop and begins to do work for their jobs (the couple each works at a different place, so this is not really a shared activity). Occasionally they will look up at each other while they work, and there might even be a few brief utterances to the other person. However, most of the next couple of hours is spent “ignoring” their date for the evening.

When you ask people why they do this, they say that if it wasn’t for work-dating, they would have no social life at all. Work has consumed them, and they have to fit the social life into the time-cracks around work.

Even our so-called personal relaxation time is not really relaxation at all, but merely personal hectic multi-tasking. One time I had the pleasure of working with entertainment and media expert Michael Wolf. He has done consulting in the field of media and entertainment with both Booz-Allen and McKinsey. More recently, he was President and COO of MTV Networks. Michael Wolf told me that there is so much desire in people to participate in all of the wonderful media and entertainment options available today, that they are making sacrifices to fit it all in.

In fact, Mr. Wolf claims that it has gotten to the point that people are making a conscious effort to cut back on eating and sleeping in order to fit more entertainment into their lives. If you know anyone who is deep into on-line gaming or spending time in virtual worlds, or wanting to upload every online video, you know exactly what I am talking about.

It seems that no task is so complicated that it cannot be compounded by subjecting the brain to either an I-Pod or a cell phone at the same time (or maybe both). It looks to me like automobiles only need half a steering wheel, since one of our hands always seems to be busy doing something else while we’re driving.

This is all a far cry from the man who helped out Henry Ford with all of those great ideas. He didn’t clog his mind with tunes or with phone chatter. He wasn’t multi-tasking. He was hardly tasking at all. Yet, from that silence came great wisdom.

Many years ago, I read of a study where someone wanted to find out if there was a common character trait among geniuses. The person came up with a list of people who are generally considered by most as being geniuses. Then this researcher examined all of their lives, to see if there was a common thread—something they all had in common.

There weren’t a great deal of common threads…geniuses are an odd and diverse lot. There was, however, one common thread: they all got more than the average amount of sleep. In fact, not only did they sleep a lot a night, but great number also regularly took naps in the middle of the day.

The conclusion? If you want great output from your brain, you need to give it time to rest. You’ve probably heard of the concept of Beauty Sleep—if you want to look beautiful, get more sleep. Well, today I am proposing the principle of Genius Sleep—if you want great ideas, you need to let your mind sleep, or get some true rest.

Silence is nothing to be feared. Doing nothing is actually a wonderful thing to do. You’d be amazed how much more productive your brain can be if you give it more time to recharge. Rather than always subjecting your brain to someone else’s ideas through passive entertainment (always throwing a movie or a game or a song at it), let you brain have time to push back in the other direction.

These days, it seems that the height of “creativity” is in what is known as “mashups.” This is where you take digital snippets from other people’s creative works (video, music, whatever) and mash them together. In some ways, this sounds like a person who would go into a library and rip a bunch of pages out of a variety of books and put the ripped pages in a pile and claim that they had just written a book.

How original of an idea will you get if you limit yourself to that which has already been created?

“Genius Sleep” needs to be proactively programmed into the lives of people given the responsibility of creating the future for your business. It doesn’t need to always be sleep per se, but it needs to be down time for the brain. The pressure to always be “on” requires some adjustment. It needs to be okay kick back and put the feet up on the desk and appear to be doing nothing. Afternoon naps are fine, or a short midday walk in the woods. Work environments need to encourage such activity.

When people used to ask me what my hobby was, I’d tell them it was pondering. It didn’t really matter what I pondered. It was all sorts of things. The important thing was that I was giving my mind a chance to wander—to romp around and dance in a field of ideas with no deadlines, timetables or pressures.

Did you every attempt to concentrate on trying not to think about something? Or maybe try to concentrate hard on trying to sleep? Usually these types of tasks are fruitless. Sometimes the brain works best when the pressure is taken off. That is what Genius Sleep is all about. If you let the brain rest, the great ideas will flow much faster than if you cram a brief “brainstorming session” into the middle of a busy day and demand that all the creative ideas comply with the space given it in your crammed-full Daytimer schedule.

Businesses need great ideas to leap ahead of the pack and win the rewards. Great ideas are not like paper clips, which you can order up any time you want from the office supply superstore. Great ideas come from great thinking. Great thinking requires the preparation of Genius Sleep. Without extended periods of brain relaxation, the brain will not be as capable of creating those great thoughts. You are cheating the future of your business if you stifle Genius Sleep. Run your business in a way that encourages down time. Don’t create expectations of constant busyness at multitasking. Allow some time-outs.

History has a way of repeating itself. About a half century after Henry Ford made those comments to the efficiency expert, I had a friend whose father was an engineer at the Ford Motor Company. Sometimes, my friend’s father would try to explain to me what he did for a living. Being a high schooler who never had a full-time job (other than summer jobs) it all sounded so odd to me. It seemed like on many days he did very little, if anything, which sounded like engineering to me.

I remember in particular him talking about a day that was spent mostly just cleaning hunting rifles and chit chatting. But here’s the point. This engineer had invented a large number of patents for Ford. One patent in particular saved Ford millions of dollars every year. To quote old Henry Ford, this man was very productive for the Ford company. I suspect that if there hadn’t been days just cleaning hunting rifles, he would have been far less productive.

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