"Taking breaks is for wimps."
...said no successful person ever.
Everyone complains about "burnout," yet why aren't the high-powered people burning out as often? Is it possible to keep up a high velocity business lifestyle, but at the same time never wear out, tune out, or drop out?
Thankfully, it it possible. And, no, it doesn't require some superhuman power or unnatural endowment of energy and stamina.
What's the secret serum? Take a break.
One study proves this point. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied four groups of people. Each of the groups worked on a brain-intensive task for 50 minutes. The group that took more breaks had the highest mental stamina at the end of the 50 minutes.
Another study from the University of Amsterdam took two groups of students, both tasked with choosing which car they wanted to purchase based on a set of specifications. One group pored over the data for four minutes. The other group was intentionally distracted by being asked to solve anagrams.
Guess who made the better decisions. It was the students who were highly "distracted" while trying to process the information.
Turns out, those "distractions" were actually helpful. By using another part of the brain, the students were able to give their analytical processing skills a break, and then solve the problem with renewed energy.
Taking a break is essential to higher productivity, energy, concentration, efficiency, creativity, and just about every other good thing that you need to survive.
So, how exactly do you take a break? How often? What do you dowhile you're taking a break?
How often should you take a break?
Every 50-90 minutes.
The average person's attention span is really short. Based on scientific measurements, the average American attention span is only 8 seconds. Here's the kicker: A goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds.
It's no wonder we have such a hard time being productive. How do we deal with such a flash-in-the-pan attention span?
We take breaks often. How often?
The productivity experts haven't yet reached a consensus, but it's somewhere in the 50-90 minute range. The United States Army research institute discovered that ultradian rhythms have 90-minute cycles. Thus, you could take a break every 90 minutes.
If stretches of 90 minutes are too hard, you can try a break every 50 minutes. The Atlantic declares that you can reach "perfect productivity" by working for 52 minutes, and then taking a break for 17.
Frequency is the name of the game with break taking. Rather than obsessing about precision-timing, find your own rhythm and stick to it.
How long should your break be?
15 to 20 minutes is the ideal length, but you can take longer at lunch.
If taking a break is so important, then the length of that break is important, too. You want to make sure that your brain has time to do everything it needs to in order to make the break profitable.
So, what exactly is that perfect time?
- If you subscribe to the Pomodoro technique, you'll take a five-minute break for every 25-minutes worked. After working four 25-minute Pomodoros, you take a 15 minute break.
- Peretz Lavie who researched ultradian rhythms, identified 20-minute "troughs" in the ultradian waveform. It's logical, then, to take a 20 minute break.
- DeskTime tracked their 40,000 users, and found that a 17-minute break every 52 minutes was the sweet spot for productivity.
The frequency of your break depends, too, on what you're doing. Coding is very different from emailing, which is different from writing. As long as you stay within the guardrails of 90 minutes, you should be okay.
Be sure to take breaks during long meetings, too. Once you reach about an hour, people are getting uncomfortable. Taking a brain break, not to mention a bathroom break, is important.
What should you do during your break?
Anything but work.
Once you establish the imperative of taking a break, you need to figure out what you're going to do with these liberated moments in your day.
I wouldn't stress too much about it. A quick ping pong game, a short drive, a brisk walk, a brief chat, a quick snooze--these are all great ways of taking a break.
Here are some additional pointers.
Stay away from your screen.
The whole idea of a break is not just the cessation of work, but doing something different. In other words, get away from your screen, yep, even your smartphone's little screen.
Move your body.
The human body craves mobility, the kind you get by moving your arms, legs, and torso. A dance in your cubicle may not be appropriate, but use your break to go for a walk around the building or a sprint up the stairs. Movement like that will also boost your mood, combat disease, and strengthen your body.
Shift your attention.
All the studies point to one very important fact: Taking a break is about using a different area of the brain. Remember the comma-sized attention span? Rather than push its limits to the breaking point, give in to its demands and do something different with that attention.
Deliberately turning off your concentration is very relaxing. Besides, as your subconscious mind keeps working on the task, you may actually find out that you accidentally solved the problem you were working on. You know what I'm talking about, if you've ever experienced an aha! moment in the shower.
Now and then, you need to give yourself a bigger break. Do that long weekend trip to Vegas or that two-week ski trip to Europe, or even a lazy indulgence on a Caribbean beach.
How do you take breaks?