What do workouts and work have in common? Just as resting between sets maximizes your workout, it turns out that taking breaks between your work sets, helps you maximize your productivity. And, continuing to work past the end of a set, leads to diminishing returns, risking injury and burnout that can carry over into the next work day, week, month or even year.
Research shows that our brains fatigue after performing a focused task for more than 90 minutes. For most, that's the point where continuing our best effort really transforms our brain to mush.
So, think of your work like a workout, consisting of 90 minute sets with 10-30 minute breaks in between. Just like lifting weights, 90 minutes should the end of your work set. You should take a break before picking up that particular task for another set.
What exactly is a break?
A true break allows your conscious mind to turn off, to rest and recover. Real breaks not only recharge your batteries, but put your subconscious mind to work developing creative ideas. And there's a real benefit to activating your subconscious mind.
Researchers have found that up to 40 percent of our breakthrough ideas come to us in moments of being on mental autopilot, or a more relaxed state. The instant you do something that puts your mind on autopilot, your conscious mind takes a back seat activating your subconscious mind, nonlinear thinking, and creative ideas to come forth.
So by taking time to quite literally slack off and zone out, you actually come back to your work with more solutions and better effort than you would if you just tried to power through it.
Develop the courage to take breaks.
Taking breaks may go against the mantras of society and work culture. It may seem lazy and counterproductive. Yet you have to remember most business endeavors fail. Most Americans struggle with burnout.
So listening to most of the common mantras and wisdom of the crowds is clearly not the right approach. And this is one of those critical areas of your practice where you need to be brave enough to be a contrarian, a revolutionary, and take actual breaks.
Force yourself to unplug and turn off.
Leave your phone behind. Take a shower. Go outside and go for a walk. Hit the gym. Try a ten-minute power nap. If you can't get out of the office, turn on some nature photos (follow @natgeo on Instagram) and listen to nature sounds on Spotify.
All of these things will give your conscious mind increase your creativity.
Don't confuse breaks for task-switching.
Switching one rigorous task for another is not rest. That's called "super-setting," or quickly exchanging one intensive exercise for another--even if it's a light, mental task.
It's fine for short periods, but not your whole workday. You need real, full and complete breaks from your mentally demanding work.
How long should a break be?
When it comes to breaks and your productivity, consistency trumps duration. It's more important that you regularly take breaks, than ensure that your next break is 30 minutes long.
Consistency trumps duration. There are benefits to a power nap for 30 minutes or less, a two-minute walk each hour, or even a simple shower.
From personal experience, I recommend blocking out 30 minutes, and ensuring at least half of it is used on a true break. Some of that time gets spent transitioning in and out of the break: peeling yourself away from the keyboard or smartphone, actually getting out of the office and walking around the building, etc.
It's about getting things done, not feeling busy.
Remember, it's not just about working hard, in terms of feeling that the effort or time applied to the problem was work. Your customers and mortgage don't care about how hard or long you tried to get things done.
It's about working smart, and actually getting things done, completing tasks, solving problems, creating product and getting it shipped.
Divide the day into sets of work and recovery.
Don't let your biggest challenge or exercise sabotage your whole day, or hurt yourself by overdoing it and burning out in the process. Divide your day into sets of work and recovery.
Make those breaks matter and make everyday about achieving a maximum, sustainable workload. This will have a compounding and lasting impact on your productivity.