If You Want to Absolutely Maximize Your Productivity — Take a Break!

You can’t go all out all the time

When you want to accelerate your career, the tendency is to hustle harder. Longer.

The stories tell you to get up at 5:00 a.m. and grind all day. Every day.

Gary Vaynerchuk famously walks fast, talks fast, and works 18-hour days.

We hear about the wizards of Wall Street starting their careers and working insane hours. Sleeping at their desks. It’s what successful people do, isn’t it?

Closet entrepreneurs are working their day jobs, spending their evenings working on the side hustle and they’ll worry about sleep next year. Maybe next decade. It’s all about the grind. Right?

Grinding is important. At the right time. With intention.

But you can’t go all-out, all the time.

If you want to maximize your productivity, take a break.

If you want to accelerate your career, become a master break-taker.

A bit counter-intuitive, no?

It’s all about working smarter, not harder.

The busier you are, the more important it is to build short breaks into your routine.

“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.” — Jim Goodwin

Lies Told By Others — and Lies You Tell Yourself

The hard-driving, workaholic stereotype is flawed and potentially harmful to your productivity — and your health.

Think about what it does to you.

You’re hustling so hard you have no time to exercise. Or sleep.

You want to stave off fatigue by gulping down the Starbucks or Red Bull.

When you work through fatigue and work extra hours, your mind wants to believe that you’re more productive because you haven’t stopped working.

Your mind is lying to you.

We start looking for caffeine at all hours of the day. The barista at Starbucks starts pouring our order before we open our mouths to order. We constantly crave sugar, which gives us that extra boost of energy.

Both caffeine and sugar activate our stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

Those hormones are great when you have to escape the tiger that’s about to eat you. Keeping those hormones coursing through your body hour after hour when you’re stressed about finishing your project on time can have a toxic effect on your health.

It can also lead to more fatigue. Which you answer with more caffeine.

Can someone say, “vicious cycle?”

I know the last thing you want to do is sacrifice valuable productive work time. You feel guilty if you take a break.

Don’t.

Even on your best, nose-to-the-grindstone, bang-away-all-day effort, you’re not getting eight hours of productivity in eight straight hours of work.

A recent study of UK office workers analyzed their productive time during an eight-hour workday. The average was 2 hours and 53 minutes of productive time. The rest of the time was spent on social media, reading news, socializing with co-workers, texting friends, getting coffee or tea, etc.

This isn’t a UK work phenomenon. This is a human being phenomenon.

Gloria Mark, a professor at UC Irvine, conducted two insightful studies. One found that the average knowledge worker is interrupted every 11 minutes. The same study estimated that it takes 25 minutes to return to the original task at the same level of concentration. Sometimes the interruption comes from someone else. Sometimes we interrupt ourselves. We get bored. We get distracted. We can’t help ourselves.

Mark’s other study suggests that we go an average of 40 seconds when working on a computer before we start to get distracted or interrupted.

When we check email or social media — for only a minute — it hijacks both our concentration and our productivity. Computers, iPads, and smartphones have turned us into Pavlov’s dog.

We also need to recognize that our minds wander. Regularly.

Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University completed a study that concluded that people spend 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing.

Yes, our minds wander. A lot. Use that reality to your advantage. Plan for it.

Some of our tasks we can accomplish out of habit. We don’t need to think too deeply and waste a lot of brain energy.

We feel good that we’ve accomplished them, but when all is said and done, they haven’t helped us make progress on our most important tasks.

There are certain tasks that require our focused attention — without distraction. These are complex problems or situations that we haven’t encountered before. If we want to complete them with the level of quality and within the time frame we want.

Cal Newport calls this Deep Work. Productivity expert Chris Bailey refers to this as Hyperfocus.

This is when you need to be at your productive best. In short bursts.

The Most Productive Routines

Once you pass an hour of focused time on a task, you actually become less productive.

The Draugiem Group completed a study using its DeskTime app, to identify the habits of the top 10% most productive users of the app. The study concluded that the most productive people worked for 52 minutes, followed by 17 minutes of recovery.

The 52 minutes was focused time, without distraction. No checking emails. No social media interruptions.

This is similar to the Pomodoro Technique, which calls for 25 minutes of focused, uninterrupted time when you work as hard and fast as you can. You take a five or ten-minute break — and then repeat the process. Hyperfocus, or Deep Work, is much more effective when it is scheduled for a specific, reasonable period of time. A sense of urgency helps to sharpen your focus — and productivity

“Don’t worry about breaks every 20 minutes ruining your focus on a task. Contrary to what I might have guessed, taking regular breaks from mental tasks actually improves your creativity and productivity. Skipping breaks, on the other hand, leads to stress and fatigue.” — Tom Rath

What to Do on Your Breaks

Be thoughtful about your breaks. Schedule them. Time them.

Some potential ways to spend your 10–20 minute break time:

  • Go for a short walk
  • Go up and down a couple of flights of stairs
  • Read an article (unless your deep work activity has been spent reading; then your eyes need a break!)
  • Daydream
  • Meditate
  • Drink a glass of water (not very sexy, but its healthy)
  • Have a conversation with a friend
  • Break for a meal or a snack
  • Complete a short task or errand that you can do out of habit or routine (that requires no deep work at all)
  • If your deep work involves working on the computer, don’t use your break time to check out your email or your favorite social media site. Your eyes need a break, along with your brain.
  • Don’t go down the social media rabbit hole, where your ten-minute break becomes a mindless adventure in the Google or social media vortex.
  • Schedule it. Don’t wait until you feel fatigued, because you may have waited too long. Breaks can prevent you from getting fatigued in the first place.

When you let your mind wander, it will give you perspective. It will allow you to reflect on what you’ve accomplished. It can re-set, re-prioritize, and re-energize you for your next sprint.

Role Model and Then Implement With Your Team

Understanding the need for breaks is important to your personal productivity and should also govern how you lead your team and run meetings.

Role model the behaviors and then share your experiences with your team.

Educate your team members on the need for breaks and their positive impact on productivity. They may be working continuously (and ineffectively!) because they believe it is your expectation. Set them straight.

Make sure that schedules allow for downtime, breaks, and vacations. Stagger breaks and recovery times. Lunch can be a time for recovery and team-building, but group breaks can challenge teams that aren’t disciplined to get back to work.

If you lead meetings that are scheduled to last more than an hour, people will need a break. Their minds will wander anyway, so let them know that you will have limited time for breaks — and when they are in your meeting, you expect their attention.

Be disciplined about start and end times to the breaks. Forcing people to sit through a three-hour meeting with no breaks is a recipe for an unproductive meeting. Run shorter meetings, stay on the agenda, start and end on time — and take breaks hourly. They’ll be much more productive…and your team members will actually look forward to attending them.

Think Long Term

The need for breaks also extends to your long-term health and productivity.

Take vacations. Get away. Unplug.

Vacations of at least ten days have the following benefits:

  • Helps prevent burnout
  • Protects relationships with people who mean the most to you (family or significant others). It allows you a period of time when you can be fully present and convey their importance to you.
  • Allows your team to grow in your absence.
  • Gives you time to reflect and consider your role and your priorities from an objective distance.
  • Some of your best ideas are likely to come when they’re not encumbered by the tyranny of the urgent. You’re more creative and more objective.

Ready…Set…Relax

When you’ve got one eye on results and one eye on your career, you want to work hard.

You should.

But also work smart.

You can’t maintain focused concentration for hours on end, day after day.

You need focused time to do your best work on important projects. The hairiest problems. The biggest opportunities.

And then you need to hit the pause button.

Take a break.

Be intentional. Schedule it. Most importantly, do it.

It will refresh your mind and allow you to come back with renewed focus and renewed energy.

For your next sprint. To get farther faster.

Almost everything will work if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you. — Anne Lamott

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