The simplest solution to getting more done in less time is counterintuitive and may surprise you.
You actually need to take more breaks throughout the day. I know, it sounds crazy. But hang with me, because this is based on science; no fluff here.
Our bodies naturally operate on a 90-minute ultradian rhythm (this is your peak-valley cycle for performance). Your body will send clear signals when those 90 minutes are up – you’ll start to fidget, feel hungry, drowsy, and lose focus. If you override those signals, your body will begin to produce stress hormones to pump up your energy. Stress hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, are toxic to your body over the long term.
The problem is that many of us have become addicted to the adrenalin rush generated by our own stress hormones. But you can only cheat the system so long before it becomes counterproductive. One consequence of relying on our stress hormones as a source of energy, for example, is that the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down in this “fight or flight” mode. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly, reflectively or creatively.
Instead of forcing your body to produce stress hormones to maintain your energy, it’s far better to take a short break – get up, go for a walk, have a snack, or re-charge – every 90 minutes.
Work in Short Sprints
You want to follow the model of a “sprinter” at work – focus on projects in short spurts, then renew your energy with a break. For maximum productivity, it’s not just the number of hours you sit at your desk – it’s the energy you bring to the hours you work. Look at this example:
Patricia spends 10 hours on the job, but because she never takes breaks and always works through lunch, she is functioning at only 60% capacity by 2pm, and 40% capacity by 4pm. By the “law of diminishing returns,” her average capacity over the 10-hour day is only 70%. This means she essentially delivers only 7 hours of work during the day, not the 10 hours she is sitting there.
In contrast, Beth spends the same 10 hours on the job, but comfortably averages 90% function throughout the day. Notice how she does it. By taking 4 short breaks during the day, she maintains nearly full mental capacity, is more focused and alert, and makes fewer mistakes. Even after subtracting the time for her rest breaks and lunch (a total of 2 hours), she still delivers 8 hours of work (a full hour more than Patricia). And the best news is, Beth still has energy left for her family when she returns home at night.
The Costs of Working Continuously
A recent Huffington Post poll found that the majority of respondents only took 20 minutes for lunch, and 25 percent never left their desk at all. But what are the costs of working so continuously? Human beings aren’t wired to operate like computers.
Maintaining a steady reservoir of energy – physically, mentally, emotionally – requires refueling your body periodically. If you work the way Beth does, you’ll get more done, in less time, and at a higher level of quality.
The trick is to learn to harness your periods of high energy for productive purposes, and also to learn to wind down, relax, and replenish your energy during the “down” times. For most people, ultradian rhythms occur at intervals of 90 minutes throughout the day, during which they feel energized and are able to get things done. This is followed by a 30-minute stretch of low energy levels. Then the cycle starts again, and you’re on your way toward another period of peak performance. When you incorporate this cycle into your work patterns, it changes everything.
How to Take a Break
It’s easy to get started on a task and realize hours later that you haven’t moved away from your desk even once. But before you go through another day without a pause, take advantage of these strategies that will remind you to take a break:
- Schedule break time. What gets scheduled gets done. Breaks are important enough to deserve a slot on your calendar. To make this more effective, connect the time slot to a specific break activity, such as going for a walk outdoors or getting a snack.
- Use an app. To avoid the pitfall of losing track of time and neglecting your breaks, consider using an app. The TimeOut app works well. TimeOut allows you to set your own break reminders that suit your schedule right on your desktop. The breaks are just long enough for a recharge but not so distracting that you lose your flow. Some alternative apps to try include Stand Up! and Breaktime.
- Establish a new habit. If you practice these workday breaks long enough, you’ll soon develop the habit. It’s much easier to make changes that stick when you use my simple 5-step process to “renew your mind.” It helps you to acknowledge the negative effects of not changing and decide what you want to do instead.
Breaks aren’t just a fun idea. They are not “time off” from what’s important. They ARE what’s important for your health, success, and productivity.
Stefani is a consultant at The Center and has experience as a leadership educator, consultant, and coach. She holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has been teaching graduate courses at West Chester University in Pennsylvania for the past 20 years. She specializes in positive, strengths-based, transformational leadership models and has engaged with more than 100 clients as an executive coach.