Are you the kind of person who closes your office door, eliminates all distractions, and makes sure to focus on your work until you finish the task at hand? You may get high marks for self-discipline--but you're not as productive as you could be. That's the finding from a study by the Draugiem Group, which used a computer application to track the work habits of employees. Although they weren't looking for it, researchers came across an interesting finding, writes author Travis Bradberry in Quartz. 

It turns out certain employees were consistently more productive than their peers, and they weren't the ones who put their heads down and kept working till the job was done. They were the ones who took frequent breaks. Specifically, researchers found, the ideal work rhythm was 52 minutes of work time followed by a 17-minute break, Bradberry explains. He writes:

"For roughly an hour at a time, they were 100 percent dedicated to the task they needed to accomplish. They didn't check Facebook 'real quick' or get distracted by e-mails. When they felt fatigue (again, after about an hour), they took short breaks, during which they completely separated themselves from their work. This helped them to dive back in refreshed for another productive hour of work."

As a result, he says, these frequent-break-takers outshone the competition by getting more done with more focus during their working time. There's a neurological reason for that, Bradberry adds. The human brain naturally works in bursts of high activity that last about an hour, and then it switches to low activity for a while. When that happens, it's in your best interest to take a break. 

The study also found that those who took breaks more often than every hour were less productive than the hourly break-takers, but still more productive than those who worked for longer than an hour with no breaks. That's useful information for anyone who uses the popular Pomodoro Technique, which I do--I'm using it right now to write this article. The Pomodoro Technique calls for work sessions of 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break, with a 15-minute break at least once every two hours. 

Researchers also found evidence of something most of us know from observation: Not all breaks are created equal. To get the full benefit of a break, you must completely disconnect from work. Ideally, stand up from your desk and walk away from your computer. In fact, going for a walk is one of the most effective ways to take a break, Bradberry says. Reading (for pleasure, not work) and chatting with friends or colleagues are also good ways to take a break. Watching YouTube videos? Not so much.

Though you may be tempted, don't fudge the definition of a break, he warns. If your schedule is overloaded (isn't everyone's?) you may want to redefine a "break" as checking your email or returning phone calls. Just don't.

Finally, as Bradberry notes, there's a flip side. You must make sure to really rest when you're taking a break, but if you want the benefit of this approach, you must also really work when you're working. Focus on the task at hand for those 52 minutes and don't slip away to check for that important email, or look at social media, or scan your favorite news site for the latest headlines. If you're not used to working for long stretches without distracting or interrupting yourself, that may seem daunting. It should be easier, though, if you keep in mind that your break time, when you can do whatever you want, is always less than an hour away.

Published on: Mar 21, 2019
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