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Are Breaks Needed for Productivity?

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”- Henry Longfellow

This well-known adage illustrates the popular belief that many preach: Stay on the grind or get left behind. When you have an impending deadline, it seems intuitive to work through the night, running high on coffee and low on sleep. However, how important is it to take a break? In fact, can taking breaks actually improve your productivity?

How long can we focus?

There comes a time when we all wait for the highly anticipated “lunch”, a break to eat and gather our bearings for the second half of the workday. However, what if it was proven that if you work a regular 9-5 pm workday, by lunch you should have taken at least 1 break? Research from the 1990s has proven that the average human can focus at a maximum of 90 minutes before needing a 15-minute break. In fact, if you continue working without taking a break, your productivity takes a nose-dive. Less is More The study proved that for long-term tasks, less is more. Splitting an all-day task into 5 parts with breaks in between can be more productive than just bulldozing through.

“From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”- Alejandro Lujas

Keep Calm and Carry On A 2012 study highlighted that greater focus is achieved when a participant is less stressed. When the participant was more stressed or forced to focus for an extended period, they made mistakes. Breaks can help the brain to take a much-needed rest. So, if you are feeling stressed about an upcoming assignment, walk it out.

The more important an assignment, the more important it is to keep relaxed.

Breaks Boost Creativity

Ever wonder why our best thoughts come to us in the shower? The key is that relaxation leads to creativity.

Studies have found that after a period of mind wandering, the mind makes more creative connections between bits of information you already know”-Business Insider

For creative tasks that require innovative thinking, it’s important that your mind is relaxed enough to wander freely. Taking breaks is necessary. This is why top creative companies such as Google and 3M encourage their employees to take Innovation Time Off(ITO). This time-off policy is where employees get 15-20% annual paid time off to hatch ideas on their own time. It is what these companies credit as a driving factor for the creation of Gmail, Adsense, Google News, and the Post-it note. These billion-dollar inventions have generated far more profits for these companies than the loss of employees' working hours.

Ask yourself: For such a great idea, why have so few companies adopted it?

Simply put, especially for start-ups, it is expensive. Losing an employee for 2 months of the year could put an enormous strain on the business. Yet, the principle remains. Give your employees as much flexibility as possible.

What does this mean? It means allowing your employees to be as flexible with their work time within reason. This depends on your business and your industry.

Managers can discuss the best way to loosen the ropes whilst still sticking to the team quota.

However, can breaks actually become counterproductive?

What is the right kind of break?

All breaks are not created equal. On company time, the aim of a break is to increase productivity, otherwise, it is just leisure on your employer’s dime. Which is (let’s not beat around the bush) just being lazy.

During our work hours, we need the right kind of break. What is the right kind of break? We are going to call these breaks productivity boosts.

Walk Don't Scroll

The key to a good break is to reduce stress, so ditch the phone. It is astounding how long a 10-minute break is when you are not mindlessly scrolling through social media.

In fact, a study from Huffington Post detailed that social networking increases stress. Go figure.

Instead, for a productivity boost, go for a walk. Take a short walk around the compound, and maybe chat with a couple of coworkers. A study by Stanford University showed that when faced with a project that required imagination, taking a short walk boosts creativity.

Step Away from the Blue Light

Another reason to ditch the phone.

Excessive exposure to blue light (the light from devices) can cause adverse health effects such as eye strain, headaches, and blurry vision. This coupled with long hours sitting down can lead to neck, shoulder, and back pain, which in a recent study over 60% of adults suffered from.

20-20-20 rule

A tip backed my opticians, every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This should let you know that taking a break is not optional, it is good for your health.

The Dilemma of the Micromanager

The micromanager, the one no one likes to be. The antagonist of the workroom and the topic of several lunchroom conversations. No manager starts off wanting to become one, but it can befall even the brightest. So many deadlines, goals, and Gantt charts, yet the employees seem so relaxed.

“How do I get everyone to be productive? I need to manage them more.”

The more you manage, the less productive your employees can become. Why is that the case?

Because, as we have addressed, stress destroys productivity.

“Many Leaders kill the growth of their organization by stifling their employees with unrealistic deadlines and the constant threat of punishment for each mistake. Employees under threat or being reprimanded for mistakes follow the rules so closely that they will not dare try anything new.”- Sheldon Sciopio, CEO of Pin-it US

According to Sciopio, to innovate requires freedom. Employees have to feel confident they can make mistakes, fail and go back to the drawing board. When employees constantly have someone over their shoulder, it heightens pressure, resulting in lower creativity.

Find Your Balance

Although the points discussed in this article are tried and true, the fact remains: that taking a break is not easy.

Even at Google, many employees do not take advantage of their 20%-time off policy because they feel it will backpedal their careers.

So how do you balance taking a break with meeting the consistent demands of your customers?

Think outside the box. There is a sweet spot that lies in your company that fulfills your business goals whilst also keeping your employees relaxed.

When mapping your outlines, try to keep your employees’ mental health in mind. For those in the creative industry, it is even more important to create a positive working environment to boost innovation.

For example, Intel has adopted a thinking time strategy where each employee clears their schedules for 2 hours every Tuesday morning to just sit and come up with ideas. Other companies give a clarity break within the workday where employees walk around with nothing but a notepad, pen, and paper for 15-30 minutes (without phones).

For these companies, the principle remains: You need a break, your employees need a break, and your managers need a break.

Each company will find a balance between productivity and innovation. What is yours?


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