Want to be more productive? Take a break!

Taking a brief break improves productivity
Taking a brief break improves productivity

The image of the head down employee toiling away for hours on end is a fairly typical one in business. Taking a break has long been recognized as an important component of the work day. Union contracts from the early days to the present always have a two break schedule written to them. The Fair Labor Standards Act does not require them but does specify that they have to be paid for if allowed. Research has found that workers are better at their tasks if they are given a break. Given that let’s explore breaks.

Some of the research

The nature of work in the modern world does not work well with the nature of our brains. Long periods of concentration are not in the hard wiring of our brains. A new study conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana –Champaign and published in the journal Cognition, overturned an old theory about the nature of attention. It demonstrated that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods. Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras noticed that focused attention to stimuli caused the brain to become habituated to the stimuli and as a result it just “disappeared.” “Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness,” Lleras said. Lleras’ study showed that by taking brief breaks during a period of heavy concentration helped to maintain focus and performance.

Nature of the break

According to Ron Friedman, writing in the Harvard Business Review, “While tiring over the course of the workday can’t be prevented, it can be mitigated. Studies show that sporadic breaks replenish our energy, improve self-control and decision-making, and fuel productivity. Depending on how we spend them, breaks can also heighten our attention and make us more creative.” Now that we have established the importance of a break let’s talk about how you can take them. Coutney Seiter, writing in Buffer Open, reviews the different schedules that people have tried for taking breaks. These include:

  • The Pomodoro Method– In this method you work for a 25 minute session followed by a 5 minute break. You then repeat this four times with the last 25 minute session followed by a 30 minute session. This technique suggests using a timer so you are specific in the time structure and you can even buy a tomato shaped timer, since pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. This is too structured for me
  • The Ultradian method- Here you work in 90 minute segments followed by 20 minute breaks. This is a method followed by many professional musicians and athletes.
  • The 52-17 method- This method was found to be a popular one of people who were deemed to be highly productive. A study found they focused for 52 minutes and then took a 17 minute break.
  • The traditional 15 minute break twice a day.

The method I use is similar to the 52-17. I receive an email once an hour from a company called Utilifit. The email designates a physical exercise that I need to do. Utilifit is a wellness driven game that is designed to fight the tendency we have of sitting too much. The premise is that “sitting is the new smoking” and the exercise gets me out of my chair.

What to do on a break

Seiter had a list of about 16 things to do on a break. I am not going to repeat them all, but here are some of my favorites:

  1. Take a walk – Research has shown that this stimulation is good for you. It actually stimulates your brain and makes you ready to get back to your work.
  2. Daydream- Again research shows that daydreaming is actually relaxing and stimulating at the same time.
  3. Have a cup of coffee – Who would have guessed.
  4. Take a nap – I don’t do this often but I am a believer in the value of short naps.
  5. Meditate – I am not a meditator, but my good friend Todd Schnick is a big believer in the power of meditation. Since he gets a ton of work done on a daily basis there has to be to be some truth to it.
  6. Exercise – As I mentioned above I get the email for some exercise. My mind is clearer and it helps my health.

The value of a break to employees and to organizations cannot be underestimated. Not only should you allow breaks you should encourage breaks. You will actually get more out of yourself and your employees.

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