Refuel your brain regularly to boost your productivity
Reading this email may be the last thing you want to do right now. You’re too busy, you have a to-do list as long as your arm, and a clock that’s ticking too fast. What you need is a break. What?! Yes, really, you do! Productivity isn’t about how much we do, it’s about how much we accomplish. Breaks help you work smarter and accomplish more.
Why don’t we take more breaks?
Very few people take enough breaks, and we all know why we don’t take breaks:
- We feel guilty about stopping work for a few minutes.
- We don’t have time – our schedules are too full, with too many meetings planned and urgent tasks to do.
- We feel like taking breaks must mean we do less.
- The more hours we work, the busier we feel – and we are addicted to being busy.
- Corporate culture – we don’t want to be the one who isn’t pulling their weight. We don’t want to be judged negatively and maybe miss that promotion.
Why you should take more breaks
Yes, why should you take a break if you could do many of your pressing tasks during this time? Well, I will give you some compelling reasons to take more breaks:
1. You brainpower is limited, it needs regular refuelling
When you work without a break, you deplete your cognitive capacity. Your brain is like a muscle and it uses enormous amounts of energy. Everyone understands that it’s necessary to take a break from physical exercise. If you don’t, your performance falls and eventually fails. The same is true for cognitive activity. You only have a limited pool of cognitive resources. Deplete these and your performance suffers. Tasks become more difficult to complete, and problems harder or impossible to solve.
Taking breaks enables your brain to ‘refuel’. When you return to the task at hand, you’ll find your focus and performance increased drastically. This is true for a long vacation, but also for a 30 seconds microbreak.
2. Science tells us that our performance decreases if we don’t take breaks
Many studies conclude that even though you might spend less time working, the performance improvement is so great that you accomplish more. Working less and achieving more? Isn’t that great? Find some interesting information under the links:
- This study suggests that prolonged attention to a single task hinders performance. In other words, you will accomplish less when you work too long on a specific task.
- In hist TED talk, Carl Honoré suggests that we do everything better when we slow down.
- A study by psychological scientists Cheng and Wang, found that people who watched a humorous video for eight minutes improved their performance when they returned to the task they had previously been working on.
3. The ‘Eureka!’ benefit of taking a break
You brain works in one of two modes: ‘fully focused’ and ‘daydream (or idle)’. Idle is a misnomer: the brain is never truly idle, it is simply wandering. Often, this is when you get the best ideas and find more creative solutions.
If you’ve ever had a ‘Eureka!’ moment, you’ll know what I mean. Most likely these great ideas occurred to you when you were showering, doing exercise, driving, taking a walk in the park, etc. Very few ‘Eureka!’ moments happen when you are fully concentrating on a single task.
4. Breaks are necessary to keep on track with your targets
When you work on a single task without a break, it’s easy to get carried away. You lose sight of your ultimate goal, and you start making errors. A break forces you to take a few moments to evaluate where you are and what you are trying to achieve. And the best thing: your brains does this by itself! The only thing you need to do is decide to take a break, that’s it! Breaks don’t hinder progress, they help it.
What to do during a break
Not all breaks are equal. A productive break will do two things:
- Detach you from the task you are doing
- Put your brain in ‘idle mode’, so it can refuel your mental energy
Here are a few examples of things to do when you take a break:
- Take a walk, or do some physical exercise. Go outside, or take a stroll through the company building.
- Eat and drink something. Go and get that amazing espresso in that little café around the corner.
- Read a book (preferably fiction).
- Listen to your favourite music.
- Stare out of the window.
- Phone a good friend.
- Take a quick nap.
- Have a coffee with a colleague.
- Watch a great TED talk (you can even filter on length so that it fits with your break time).
What not to do during a break
Some activities feel like you are taking a break, but they don’t fulfil those two important conditions of productive breaks. For example, doing another task still uses brainpower. Catching up on (personal) emails, working on a home project, or planning a holiday may be a break from your routine, but you are still using mental energy. You must switch to a ‘refuelling activity’, like those mentioned above.
Other activities that feel like refuelling but aren’t include:
- Watching TV
- Reading the news
- Checking your Facebook feed
- Random stuff on your phone
- Surfing the internet
How often should you take a break?
Many patterns have been put forward as the ideal for taking breaks. Here are three strategies you might try:
The Pomodoro Technique:
This technique helps you to work in short bursts, taking advantage of the time when your focus is likely to be strongest. You work in 25-minute bursts, with a 5-minute break between each. After four cycles, you take a 30-minute break.
The 90-Minute Work Cycle
This is great for those who prefer to complete a big task before taking a break. It fits in with the body’s natural rhythm. You work for 90 minutes, take a 20-minute break, and then repeat.
The 52/17 Routine
A recent study, conducted by DeskTime, found that a 52/17 routine could be the most productive of all. You work for 52 minutes, and then take a 17-minute break. This creates a sense of urgency for the period you are working; you could call it a sprint. Once you have reached the finish line (52 minutes), you rest up for 17 minutes.
Listen to your brain, it tells you!
All these techniques are great. But what’s even better is that your brain signals when it needs a break in several ways. For example, you may become tired or your eyesight becomes a bit blurred. Mentally, you may become bored, and your thoughts go elsewhere. This is your brain telling you it needs a rest from focusing so intensely. If you get to this point, your brain energy level is way too low.
So next time when you notice that you are thinking about something else than the task at hand, when you start feeling tired, or when you cannot really concentrate anymore: Take a break!
Personalise your break routine
The need to take breaks is clear and has been proven scientifically. It’s like Stephen Covey says about the chicken that lays golden eggs. Production depends upon the condition of the chicken. If you don’t take care of the chicken, it will stop laying those golden eggs. Think of you as the chicken, and the tasks you do as the golden eggs.
Your challenge is to find the break routine and type of break that works best for you. Experiment with the ideas and techniques above. Try different activities when you take a break. Find the work-rest-work combination that maximises your productivity, and remember that a few minutes’ idleness will refuel your mental energy levels and help you achieve more.
I help entrepreneurs and business leaders from all walks of life with one-to-one advice customised to improve personal productivity. If you want to explore methods and strategies that will help you achieve more and be better than ever, contact me today.