Prior to my life as a health and wellness coach, I worked in a variety of professional positions in the healthcare arena: project manager, performance improvement specialist, physician practice manager. In each of these roles, I aspired to be a “model employee” with my nose to the grindstone, accomplishing as much as I could within the work day. Prior to having a child, it was easy to work 50- to 60-hour weeks, logging 8+ hour days often by working through lunch to catch up on emails and other tasks at my computer. I found a little more balance after my daughter was born, as I had to leave the office on time to pick her up from daycare…but that fact seemed to intensify the need to forgo breaks and power through lunch in order to accomplish as much I had been doing in a shorter amount of time.
I, like many others, wore this work ethic like a badge of honor. We looked down our noses at (yet perhaps secretly envied) those coworkers who were religious about taking their mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks as well as the full 30 or 60 minutes allotted for lunch. And those who actually left the office to go out for lunch!? We couldn’t fathom how they were accomplishing as much as we were, scarfing down our sandwiches so we could respond to a few more emails before rushing off to our next meeting.
Doing it all wrong
Turns out, we “model employees” were doing it all wrong, based on the findings from a number of productivity studies published in the last decade or so. Just yesterday, a tweet came across my feed quoting a 2014 article from The Atlantic, which highlighted results from a study suggesting the formula for “perfect productivity”: 52 minutes of focused work followed by a 17-minute break. Where did these specific numbers come from? A social networking company, the Draugiem Group, used the time-tracking productivity app DeskTime, to see what habits set their most productive employees apart. They found that the 10% of employees with the highest productivity didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. The secret to their success was to take regular breaks and – you guessed it – they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.
Perhaps more important than the fact that these employees took breaks throughout the day is what they did – or didn’t do – on their breaks. The time was spent completely away from the computer or other electronics, so they weren’t checking personal email, or catching up on social media. Some of the most common activities these employees engaged in were taking a walk, chatting with colleagues (about non-work-related topics), or reading a book. This study demonstrates what researchers have been saying for years – that our brains simply aren’t built to focus for long stretches at a time. Rather, the key to high productivity is not working longer, but working smarter by taking frequent breaks.
What surprised, and to some extent saddened, me is that we have known this information for quite some time, but culture in the workplace seems slow to change. The Atlantic article cited research from a similar study conducted by Cornell University’s Ergonomics Research Laboratory in 1999 – that’s almost 20 years ago! The Cornell study used a computer program to remind employees to take short breaks. The researchers found that workers who received the reminders to assume good posture, take short breaks and occasionally stretch did more accurate work and as a result were more productive. Furthermore, the increase in productivity allowed the company to recoup its investment in the software in about three months. I don’t think any employer could argue with that return on investment.
Old habits die hard
So, given that science has shown repeatedly that our ability to perform tasks has diminishing returns over time, why do so many of us find it difficult to stop and take breaks? True confession: I struggled with it even as I was writing this blog post. And I have a Fitbit that reminds me to get up and move every hour, so I really have no excuse! Some days I do better than others, especially when I am feeling the mental fatigue of working on the computer. I think many of us though, myself included, still carry that false assumption that “powering through” will allow us to accomplish more. Perhaps we are not sure how to build the breaks into our schedule – or more importantly, how to hold ourselves accountable to actually take them.
Below are some tips that may help you develop the habit of taking periodic breaks during the day:
- Schedule breaks into your daily calendar. They don’t necessarily have to be every 52 minutes like the study suggests but aim to take a break at least once every 60-90 minutes.
- Set a timer or alert to remind you when to take your break. The key here is to not ignore the alert – one idea is to have a sticky note or similar visual to remind you WHY it’s so important to take a break.
- If you work outside the home, find a “break buddy” – invite a coworker to take a walk or chat about current events. Hold each other accountable to a certain number of breaks per day.
- If you work by yourself at home and have a pet, consider using your animal companion as a break buddy. Play with your dog or cat for 10-15 minutes. If you don’t have a pet, you can use the time to read, listen to a few favorite songs, or engage in a favorite hobby (e.g., crossword or picture puzzles).
Learning to change your work habits will take time and patience, but in the end, it will benefit you and/or your employer. You’ll feel better and you’ll likely accomplish more by working less. Give it a try – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.