Let’s consider two types of working day that many of us have experienced.
After a solid night’s sleep, you arrive at the office on a crisp morning and sit behind your desk ready to take on the world. Colleagues stop by with additional workload or added wrinkles to supposedly settled plans, but you smile and think ‘Bring it on, guys, because today I’m unstoppable’. Before you know it, you’re putting on your coat as your inbox finally gets a break from all that ferocious productivity. You arrive home to a well-earned dinner and box set binge before retiring to the sleep of the just.
It’s light years from lunch, you didn’t sleep and that third coffee’s got you wired but still tired. You can’t face your inbox as your mind constantly cycles through six troublesome outcomes and, besides, someone keeps ringing up about a non-existent car accident. Aeons later you finally pop out for a sandwich, returning to find yourself nominated to arrange a summer softball tournament. You think ‘If one more person approaches my desk…’ And here comes Bob from Accounts with that flushed look that usually means…
These two contrasting days are extreme examples. But if Day 2 feels more familiar, you may need to take action… or rather inaction. After all, most of us take annual leave to refresh us during the working year. Many of us use the weekend to rest after the working week. Some of us even enjoy an hour’s lunch to recharge during the working day. But it’s the smaller breaks we may be missing out on.
“Take a break? With my workload?”
It may seem a bit contradictory, but taking small breaks can actually increase productivity. After all, exactly how productive is that person experiencing Day 2? Would you entrust them with an important project? Would you ring them up and ask for a favour? And what if an important client was coming in? Would you introduce them?
Stress isn’t a good look. Nor is it a productive or smart working style. And, crucially, stress usually starts affecting your mood before you even notice it. In the example above, the stress of Day 2 may actually have kicked off at around 4.30 on Day 1.
The point is, you shouldn’t take a break when you feel stressed, you should have taken a break some time before – in fact, a series of them.
Putting your foot on the accelerator and going all out until the close of business is not a productive strategy. Some people may make it look that way, but most of us know that our brains weren’t built for extended focus.
We need to take breaks. Not because we’re lazy, but in order to make our work life more like Day 1 and less like Day 2. As the author and social entrepreneur, Bryant McGill, says, “The calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges”.
Nor is it just about rest. Anyone who works in a creative field soon learns that you don’t always solve problems by relentlessly confronting them. As John Cleese put it, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”
You focus on a creative problem, then let it go, then go back to it and repeat. Taking a break from solving a problem, even briefly, allows the subconscious mind – the genius mind – to work on it. This usually produces deeper, more satisfying solutions, as you may have noticed yourself when getting all those bright ideas in the shower.
Planning your breaks
The point about taking breaks, as we’ve stated, is that they have to be pre-planned for maximum benefit. There are a number of formulas for building these breaks into your day. They include the Pomodoro Technique, which advocates five minutes of downtime every half hour for two hours followed by a longer break. Other people advocate 90 solid minutes of work with twenty minute breaks.
However, most of us tend to take breaks in a more natural way, supplementing lunch with smaller pauses that break up the morning and afternoon.
Asking around the Helix office, I uncovered a variety of ‘time out’ strategies.
Yvonne says it’s quite organic. “I don’t have a system. We work in groups of three and take turns to make drinks. I know when I get to the end of something, I’ll say, “Right – tea”. Maybe that’s my way of going ‘stop’”.
Alison often browses in the shops at lunchtime. “It just switches my mind off. I try to take a full hour. It’s not always possible but it helps avoid a slump at around 3 or 4 o’clock”.
Jenny says she gets lots of breaks, not necessarily away from work, but by doing five-minute tasks here and there. She thinks “a change is as good as a rest”. She also believes in the restorative power of reading fiction rather than cramming in course books for work. “I like to read novels that are completely unrelated to my career… I can become really engrossed in another world”.
Dawn says her breaks come naturally. “This is quite a free flowing office so you’ll pop down and speak to accounts or a surveyor. We might discuss a situation at one of the properties and how it was solved. It gets your mind away from your own responsibilities”.
Whatever your strategy, make sure you take enough breaks.
Burnt out workers aren’t doing themselves or their employers any favours – especially if burnout leads to depression and results in extended absences from work. As author Alan Cohen says, “There is virtue in work and virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither”.