For those who seek positions of business leadership or self-employment, it’s easy to feel duty-bound to your aspirations even when you’re off the clock. Career-driven people tend to spend their free time doing things that contribute to their professional goals, such as networking, reading business books, learning a work-related skill or keeping a business blog.
But is this singular focus really a good thing? Many studies seem to indicate that challenging your mind in different ways may better expand your creativity, mental agility and emotional intelligence. Here are eight non-work activities that have been scientifically proven to hone skills that are essential for any great business maven.
Read Fiction and You Will Read People Better
Many career-driven people are avid readers. A lot of the ambitious professionals in my industry devour a book by the likes of Guy Kawasaki or Seth Godin every week. Meanwhile, as an English major, I’ve noticed the dwindling of fictional literature on my bookshelf in favor of books that are “relevant” to my career. Is this shift a bad thing?
While reading bestsellers about marketing and leadership may provide you with excellent tools for professional growth, you should think twice before setting aside fictional literature for good. Studies have found that reading literary fiction (and fiction specifically) enhances a reader’s ability to understand other people’s emotions in the real world.
Fostering your empathy and emotional intelligence is critical for building solid partnerships, collaborating in a meaningful way and inspiring others to follow you. High emotional intelligence has been directly linked to people’s ability to resist negative behavior, manage conflict and increase the job performance and satisfaction of both themselves and those they work with.
Buy Clothing With a Scientific Purpose in Mind
You’ve probably already heard the old trope about “dressing for success” so that others take you seriously. The reality is, the effects of your attire go beyond acquiring respect or feeling attractive.
A series of studies showed that if subjects are wearing a white lab coat, they will make literally half the amount of mistakes on a test than those who don’t wear the coats. Even those who wore the same lab coats but were told they were “painters’ coats” did poorer on the test than those who were told they were wearing “doctors’ coats.” It turns out that wearing a doctor’s coat doesn’t only make people feel smarter, it literally makes them smarter.
Before you run out and buy a set of lab coats to wear around the office, consider what this study really implies: your intelligence and mental abilities are not set in stone, but are flexible, shaped largely by what you believe is expected of you. These expectations appear to be based—at least partially—on your attire. When you dress creatively, sharply, smartly or generally like the professional that you aspire to be, your brain will do its best to rise to the challenge and become the person your outfit represents. So perhaps it’s time to go shopping?
Travel: Relating to Other Cultures Enhances Creativity
One of the best-known ways to enhance your innovative thinking is to travel. A Northwestern study found that people who learned to identify with two cultures instead of one were more successful, more entrepreneurial, had better professional reputations and had a higher rate of promotions during the span of their lifetime.
In fact, an Indiana University study showed that even thinking about faraway people or places leads people to come up with more innovative and numerous solutions to problems. So while you’re at it, go ahead and daydream about life in Italy; even this may spur more creative thoughts.
Be a Customer Yourself: See What Blinds You
Whether or not you work with them directly, your goal is always to understand the customer better. Sitting around and pontificating on “what the customer really wants” from the inside of a conference room has its limitations. Even brainstorming with your co-workers can only get you so far; your intimate knowledge of your product and industry will inevitably distort your ability to understand the perspective of an outside customer (particularly a first-time customer).
Luckily, you are a first customer every single day. Recognizing your feelings, reactions and experiences as a consumer can be immensely valuable. Next time you are shopping or receiving a service, pay attention to your emotions throughout experience. Remember what pleasantly surprised you, like those freshly cut carnations on your restaurant table, or the personalized note from an Esty seller. Remember the things that left a bad taste in your mouth, like the hostess who didn’t return your smile, or the online store where you couldn’t see the shipping costs until after you entered your credit card info. What aspects of a customer experience frustrates you? What grabs your attention? What brings you back for more?
When you are a consumer, the subtle touches or small bumps that affect your experience (and which you often miss as a seller) can suddenly come into clearer focus. Go shopping and pay close attention; ultimately you will get better at closing that gap in perspective.
Keep a Journal and Write Creatively
Every professional knows the value of good writing—it allows you to communicate concepts more clearly and helps you appear more intelligent in email correspondence. While writing a business blog may benefit your branding efforts, studies show that unbridled creative writing has an even more significant effect on your ability to process complicated ideas.
Partaking in regular “expressive writing,” which refers to the emotional, anecdotal and deeply personal writing involved in journaling, has been shown to improve memory and help people work through negative events and emotions more rapidly.
Furthermore, creative writing on a consistent basis helps you understand, remember and retrieve different types of information, and it can even help you better comprehend and explain very complex concepts to others. This ability to not only manage your own understanding of a circumstance, but to clearly communicate intricate ideas to other people, is invaluable for collaboration and leadership.
Sleep In: Over 8 Hours Improves Brain Function
Especially if you’re trying to master a skill or solidify your understanding of a new concept, sleep is essential for codifying memories and information, according to researchers at University of Pennsylvania.
What about all-nighters? Unfortunately, the downsides of these entrepreneurial badges of honor almost always outweigh the potential benefits. Even after several days of “catching up” on sleep, a human being’s attention span and overall mental abilities remain impaired long after their extended wakefulness. In fact, further studies from Penn show that staying awake for an extended period of time (and on a regular basis) leads to irreparable neuronal damage and even a loss of brain cells.
Test the Limits of Your Body
During my college graduation celebration, I noticed that all of the students were dancing near the band, but most of the older, tenured professors squirmed awkwardly on the sidelines like a bunch of pre-teen boys at their first middle school formal. These wise academics I’d revered for years suddenly seemed incredibly awkward. A professor with a healthy amount of self-deprecating humor joined me in my observation of this inelegance, and explained, “In the service of exercising our minds, we have forgotten how to use our bodies!”
If you are like many workers today, then you exercise your mind significantly more than your body. So much so that thinking critically has become a familiar challenge, one that you are accustomed to confronting on a regular basis. Meanwhile a physical challenge, like running a marathon or learning how to tango, may seem infinitely more daunting than the idea of writing up a huge report.
Here’s why that’s important: being successful will involve doing a lot of things you don’t want to do, and which challenge you in a completely unfamiliar way. Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone prepares you to tackle the curveballs that will be thrown at you constantly during your path to success.
Meanwhile, challenging your body in this way will probably get you in better shape. As you probably know, regular exercise has countless benefits for your brain, including enhancing its size, increasing your mental acuity and boosting your levels of norepinephrine, which increases your overall sharpness and attention.
Practice Haggling: Save Money and Get Better at Negotiating
Whether or not you need the money, practice haggling in a setting you’ve never tried before. There are obviously certain places you can’t haggle (e.g. for food in the grocery store) but there are other opportunities you may be overlooking.
Everyone is used to haggling for a car price, but next time try haggling for your car tires. Also try large appliances, furniture and mattresses; remember that sometimes you can get a discount on the floor model, or can negotiate better prices in January before new inventory arrives for the year.
With luxury items, such as fine jewelry, remember that the price is often determined by trends and fluctuating styles rather than based on a hard, set value.
Finally, see if you can get a discount if you offer cash instead of using credit (since this saves the merchant a transaction fee).
Haggling may feel smarmy, but in the cases mentioned above, it applies to items that are already marked up significantly. Not to mention that haggling is much more common in other countries, and surveys show as much as 72% of American consumers have haggled and 80% of them report being successful.
Does the idea of haggling still make you uncomfortable? Good. That means that you’re on the right path. Most people feel uncomfortable asking for money or special consideration, but this is basically what you are doing when you ask a customer to give you money. If you can’t ask a mattress salesman for a discount, how can you ask an investor to give you money, or a client to pay for your services? A successful person must embrace discomfort; it’s a natural part of achieving great things.