Why more play makes you more productive

Updated to Business on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

At some point we all learned time management. It went something like this:

1) make a list

2) follow the list (no matter what)

3) cross off the list

Good luck with that.

The average person is interrupted every four to eight minutes at work and for about eight to twelve minutes at a time.

Do the math on that, assuming a 50 work-week year, allowing for holidays and it comes to…

Yup, a pain in the ass.

Being highly effective, including avoiding distractions, requires more than a list – you have to want to do the work.

That’s where play comes in.


Let’s look at the four types of time you have: planning, production, personal, and play.

PLANNING helps you ration time and avoid over committing

PRODUCTION is single-focus, get-it-done work time

PERSONAL is for family, friends, and food (preparing, sharing, enjoying)

And PLAY is all for you

For me, play happens when I’m reading a great book, running the trails above my house, paddling the lake, playing my guitar, or taking in a yoga class. 

Play is when you are so in the moment you can’t think of anything else

Play is when time flies by (and you don’t care)

And play is what resets your mind, renews your spirit, and recharges your commitment.


Let’s do a quick test. You can do this in less than two minutes and it could change your life (it changed mine).

On a piece of paper make this chart (or click on the image and print it).

score cardNext, consider this week, or any typical week – how do you allocate your time in your day?

For each line: on a scale between 0 and 5, where “5” means “I consistently invest the right amount of time in this area” how would you rate yourself?

This simple exercise always gets an audience’s attention. Something clicks when you quantify what is normally hard to measure. 

When I first did this exercise, I scored myself a “2” on Personal and “3” on Play.

I was pretty good at Planning and Production – I’ve always been a focused, hard worker. But, work was beating out Personal time and even in my Play time I was thinking about work.


Think of the brain like a muscle.

With muscles, there are slow twitch muscles that are used for endurance and fast twitch that are used for acceleration and speed. You need both.

During the day we run on fast twitch-like brain power. Responding, typing, talking, and making fast decisions. Awesome for production. Now, try to sit down and enjoy a book or have a meaningful talk with your partner at home. You’re maybe good for about five minutes before you have to go slay another dragon.

The anecdote to fast twitch is play time. But, don’t think of this as frivolous, wasted time – it’s not. Play time as how you restore, rejuvenate, and refresh your brain to go back to slaying dragons.


More and more recent brain research is proving the effectiveness of Play time for developing healthy brains. Here are some examples:

** Exercise is known to improve the brain’s executive functions (planning, organizing, multitasking, and more).

** Meditation stimulates the left prefrontal cortex (generally associated with positive emotions), helps to reduce anxiety, and improve creative thinking. 

** Music can activate your brain’s reward centers and depress activity in the amygdala, reducing fear and other negative emotions.

** Video games can improve attention span and information processing skills, even (according to one study) your confidence and social skills.

** Playing cards, doing puzzles, or crosswords stimulates new brain connections, while reducing risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.


Nothing changes until you feel the pain. Revisit your score card above. Do you need to make a change? If not, thanks for reading this far – have a nice day.

If you want to change you need to agree a little effort in the right direction is an investment that will pay big time, with dividends.

Next, you need to decide what Play time looks like for you.


Here’s the rule book for play time:

1. you do it every day

2. when you are doing it you can’t think about anything else

3. you love it

And don’t tell me you like to go fishing. Nice idea, but unlikely you do it every day.

Watch my new Slideshare show about play time.



Here are my picks for awesome play time (send me yours in the comments below):

  • walking my dog
  • listening to music
  • playing guitar, piano, nose flute
  • knitting, macramé, needlepoint
  • painting, drawing, carving, clay-work
  • photography
  • reading fiction
  • creative writing, journalling, doodling
  • meditation, yoga, martial arts
  • trail running, hiking, cycling, walking
  • Sudoku, solitaire, crossword puzzles


Do you have enough Play in your day?

Here’s the deal. We could be having this conversation a year from now and nothing’s changed. 

Or you could start with 20 minutes of Play time today just for you.

Be selfish: you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself first. 

Now, go play.