If you are anything like me, then you probably believe in the value of both working hard and working smart. It’s no secret that individually these two principles can take us along way toward accomplishing our goals. And when we use them in combination, they become even more powerful productivity tools. That’s when we can go beyond merely accomplishing goals, and into that realm of really flowing with our passion.
Sometimes, though, it seems like these approaches can be a bit at odds with each other. I’ll give you an example. There was a time in my professional career when I used to feel guilty about taking a break from work. I thought it meant that I wasn’t working hard. I was cheating myself out of valuable work time, or not honoring my commitment to my employer.
I’ve since learned that is definitely not the case. Taking breaks during the workday is not only a smart way to go about things—because it is healthier for your mind and body—but it also helps us better achieve those things that our “hard” work is meant to accomplish: greater productivity and higher quality of work.
So I thought I would give some insights into one of the most powerful productivity tools that I have in my bag of tricks. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it involves taking breaks—not only why you should take them, but also how to do them the right way.
When your brain starts tuning out, it’s time for a break
A study published in 2010 in the journal Cognition set out to examine why performance inevitably declines when we focus on a single task over a long period of time.
This phenomenon, described as “vigilance decrement,” refers to the fact that we can only maintain our attention on something for so long. In the past, the common wisdom was that we have a sort of attention fuel tank. We start the day on full and it gradually burns away the longer we use our “attentional resources.” Performance declines because we simply can’t focus.
The new study, however, contradicts this notion. According to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we are always paying attention to something. What causes our drop in performance is not a lack of attention, but a shift of attention.
When our brain becomes aware of something for too long, it sort of becomes numb to it. If you wear glasses, for example, then you know that you don’t feel them on your face. You don’t notice the frame in your vision. These things are such a constant presence that your brain tunes them out.
According to the study, the same thing happens when you work on something for an extended period of time. Your brain starts getting the impression that what it is seeing is not important. Your brain doesn’t want to waste energy focusing on something that is a given, so it begins looking for something else that is more interesting.
We register this as boredom, and we start inventing reasons to look at other things. When we find them, which we register this as procrastination. In theory, however, even though our brains have tuned-out the work we were doing, it could just as easily become interested in it again. We can greatly increase productivity at work by stepping away for a bit and then reintroduce our brains to the task at hand.
So now you know why it’s no good to fixate on the same task for too long. You’ll perform poorly at it, and you’ll look for anything else to focus your attention on. Taking a break allows you to reset.
But there are other advantages to taking breaks that go beyond what you can accomplish once you begin working again. This tip for productivity has to do with the fact that when you step away from the desk and do something moderately active, like take a walk, your brain can find solutions to sticky problems that have been vexing you all day.
In 2014, Stanford University conducted a study on the level of creative breakthroughs people make while walking versus sitting. The data showed that people, whether walking on a treadmill or outside, generated twice as many creative responses as those who were sitting down (using standard tests to gauge creative thought).
But before you rush out and buy a treadmill desk (yes, they do exist), realize that while walking is a great productivity tool when it comes to creative problem solving, it does not necessarily have a positive effect on focusing on a single task. The best method seems to be to take a break, take a short walk, and return to what you were doing with fresh insights.
Taking breaks effectively
Okay, so taking breaks is a great insight on how to improve productivity. They can help your mind reset on the task you’re working on and refocus. They can also provide you with creative flashes that help you push through difficult problems. The last question is, what should I do while I’m on a break? Or, even better, what should I not do while I’m on break?
Refrain from doing passive things like watching TV, watching YouTube videos, or cruising social media. This will not allow your brain to effectively reset and will likely send it into the dopey alpha state (associated with relaxation and daydreaming). Instead of returning to work refreshed, you’ll go back zombified and it will all just be a waste of time.
Checking your email is not a great option either, as your brain is still staring at “the screen”.
You need to pull your face out of your monitor (or phone), get up, literally change your scenery and do something slightly active. We’ve already discussed walking, but you can even do some type of organizational task around your office. Sometimes I like to kick back with pen and paper and doodle out some new ideas—a new process, or an organizational structure.
And if you really want to get some higher productivity out of your afternoons, you can go so far as to incorporate a little exercise break into your day to beat that after-lunch fatigue. It doesn’t have to be anything insane, just a short ten-minute burst will allow you to return to maximum focus.