Why You Need To Take A Break From Work For Good Productivity

Yesterday was one of those days. I sat at my laptop screen with a to-do list the size of a small country and I just typed. I typed for two or three hours and by the time I was done with all the typing, I had made literally no progress.

Between second-guessing myself, deciding I didn’t like what I’d done, changing my mind, and just losing focus, I essentially wasted a good couple of hours sitting at a computer and “working” but actually getting no work done.

I got up, turned the computer off, and went for a walk. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Walking away when you’ve got a long list of deadlines and time won’t do you the courtesy of just slowing down while you get back in the game. But I needed it. Then I came back to my computer a couple of hours later and ticked the two highest priority items off that list in less time than I’d spent to achieve nothing earlier on in the day.

Taking a break is about so much more than a coffee and a chat. It’s not a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity! So, let’s ditch the guilty feelings of taking a break from work, and let’s stop snacking at our desks for 5 minutes instead of actually taking lunch. It will help us work better, be better employees or entrepreneurs, and possibly even live longer.

Here’s why you need to take a break from work for good productivity.

1. Humans Cannot Function Productively for Hours on End

Humans can’t function productively for hours on end, despite what your employment contract says.

Do you care to guess how many hours a day you’re productive for? Is it 6? 7? All 8 of the main working day hours? Probably not. Studies suggest you’re productive for 2 or 3 hours at best.[1]

So, what are you doing for the rest of the time you’re sitting at your screen? You’re working significantly less productively, which is no better for you than it is for your boss.

I’m not saying we all need to move to a 3-hour working day with immediate effect. Let’s be practical about it. But accepting that after a couple of very productive hours, you need a break before you can come back and do that again is a good start.

2. Regular Breaks Are Good for Your Memory

Scientific research points to the fact that regular short breaks can improve your memory.[2] Better memory means you can whizz through tasks faster and more effectively. But a break, the study found, also helps you to retain recently acquired information.

So, if you’re doing the research for a report or you’re in a meeting for a couple of hours, actually walking away afterward and taking that coffee break can help you better retain the facts, figures, or information you just got.

Could this be one of the reasons why the Pomodoro Technique can be so effective for so many? Regular breaks in that technique could mean you’re actually processing all the information you’re getting from your work properly and taking that forward into the next task.

3. A Break Enhances Your Energy Levels

Research in 2016 confirmed what I imagine many of us suspected. If you take a break, your energy levels will improve.[3]

There’s no productivity killer quite as lethal as lethargy. And I personally suffer from the dreaded “afternoon slump” a lot. If you’re tired, you won’t concentrate as well and you will not get as much done. It’s that simple. The research suggests that taking a break at lunchtime (an actual break, not 5 minutes browsing Facebook at your desk with a sandwich) boosts energy levels, thus improving your focus into the afternoon.

I know there are workplaces where the culture is very much lunch-at-desks. But if you feel the need to justify taking your full lunch break, then consider this it. Science says you’ll get more done in the afternoon.

4. You’ll Make Better Decisions After a Break

Decision-making—whether these decisions seem like minor or major ones—is an important part of our daily work. A group of researchers found that failing to take breaks leads to decision fatigue.[4]

Now, the decisions being made by the subjects of their study really were life-altering too. The study followed a group of judges who were ruling on whether to grant people parole. The study found they were much likelier not to grant parole to someone had they not had breaks. The scientists put this down to the judges (consciously or otherwise) making the easier decision on occasions where they hadn’t taken breaks and were therefore not rested.

I personally don’t have to make decisions that affect people’s lives like that (thankfully). But I’ve definitely experienced myself that when I’m feeling like I’m overdue a break, I am likelier to take the easy road even if it’s not the best one. So, switch the screen off, get away from your desk, grab a bite, and get some fresh air. Your decision-making will thank you for it.

5. Breaks Improve Your Creativity

Whether you’re a writer, a lawyer, a marketer, or something else entirely, some degree of creativity is probably a requirement in your role. From creative problem solving to slogan writing, your imagination and creativity can play a huge role in the quality of your work.

I’ve often found my creative breakthroughs coming at the least convenient times (maybe I should start taking a notebook in the shower and to bed). My “aha!” moments, inconveniently, never really happen when I’m in a brainstorming session or when I’m in a call with a client or sitting at my screenwriting strategy and planning documents. Oh no, that would be too easy.

In fact most of my creative ideas, I’ve found, happen on walks or when I’m relaxing at home. Turns out, I’m not at all unique in that. A study found that creativity was improved by walking (as opposed to sitting).[5]

So, instead of sitting staring at your screen (and, if you’re anything like me, getting more frustrated by the minute) just walk away—literally. Get outside and just walk. Even if you don’t have the “aha!” moment you’re looking for, you’re probably going to be likelier to stumble upon a creative breakthrough later for having taken the break.

6. Breaks Are Good for Your Health

A healthier you is a more productive you. There’s nothing quite like a health crisis to knock your productivity, after all.

Breaks aren’t only a necessity for your mental health but your physical health, too. This is particularly notable for office workers and those of us who sit at desks and screens for vast quantities of the day. Back problems, cardiovascular problems, and weight gain, or even obesity are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damage experts believe that prolonged sitting can do.

So, not only is taking a break great for your energy levels, it’s imperative for your physical health. Stand up, move, and walk. If you can’t get out for a long walk, just take a 15-minute stroll around the block. It’s good for you in so many different ways.

Our physical and mental health is intrinsically linked to how well we perform at work. So, don’t feel guilty for prioritizing your health. It’s good for your work in the long term, too.

Tips for Fitting Breaks in

I’m self-employed with the flexibility to work hours to suit me, my family, and our schedules. I also know that I am far more productive in the mornings than in the afternoons, so I take my breaks in the afternoon very often.

I’m also fortunate that our office is very close to a stunning reservoir with jaw-droppingly beautiful walks. So, I often take some time out in the afternoon to talk or run there and invariably find that it leaves me feeling far more equipped to deal with the rest of the day.

But I also know that not everybody is in that position. So, if you find you’re working for someone else and you’re working set office hours, perhaps without much space for getting out for walks, here are a few tips for getting your breaks in:

  1. Eat your lunch away from your desk wherever possible. Stand up if you can (standing desks, breakfast bars, and so forth are helpful here). Making lunch a set time each day that you actually take a break is a simple way to make that time within the allowances of a pre-set working day
  2. Walk before work. Even if you just park a mile further from your office or get off your transport a stop or two earlier, you buy yourself a precious few moments to walk, decompress, and just relax while getting in some physical activity. When I was working for someone else a few years ago, I found this a life-changing habit and it was such a small change. I arrived at work feeling refreshed and ready.
  3. Switch off at home. The nature of the ever-connected society we live in is that we are plugged into our work constantly. But try to take time out—completely out. When you’re not at work and you can take the time out, capitalize. I also know that some workplaces have a toxic culture of expecting prolonged hours, evening work, and dragging staff onto projects over the weekend. If you’re in the position to push back, please do. No job is worth having no life outside of the office.
  4. Try to lead from the front and build a culture of smart working. If you’re a leader, then encourage your team to work smarter—encouraging breaks to improve productivity and allowing people to experiment with other productivity techniques like Pomodoro.
  5. If you’re not in management, then perhaps speak to management and sell the business benefits of a smarter working culture. It’s a simple business case to make when you can prove productivity increases and more gets done in a day if people take a full lunch break for example. See if you can get them on board.

A Necessity, Not a Luxury

Over the years, I’ve come to regard breaks as an absolute necessity if I want to work smarter and continue to deliver my best work. It’s a mindset shift from ten years ago when I regarded them as a self-indulgent luxury I needed to live without.

If you’ve been denying yourself breaks, then maybe start fitting one in each day and seeing what difference it makes to you and your work. I don’t imagine you’ll be disappointed. Now, please do excuse me. I’m off for a walk.

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Featured photo credit: Christin Hume via unsplash.com

Reference

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