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Take a break …

| December 12, 2017

by Jim Bruce

… you (we all) need one

Marty Jordan, human resources consultant at Linkage, Inc., tells us that “we are a society obsessed with activity and view inactivity as being lazy.”  She goes on to note that “We’re conditioned to be overworked and to believe that if, at any point, we aren’t doing something that resembles ‘work,’ we’re not productive.”
Researchers at the University of Virginia have found that most people would rather be doing just about anything than to be just sitting alone with their thoughts.  These researchers wonder if this has anything to do with the evolutionary capacity of mammals to continuously monitor their environments for dangers and opportunities. 
Dr. David Rock, author and leading thinker in the area of neuroscience and leadership, notes that non-stop activity reduces the resources available to our thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex.  This part of the brain is responsible for what’s known as our executive function which includes processing and comprehending information, problem solving, and decision making.  When this part of our brain is overstimulated, we have a greater tendency to respond negatively to situations as we don’t have available capacity to work the situation through.  And, in contrast, when the brain is still, it has permission to wander and wonder.  In this resting state, neural networks can process experiences, consolidate memories, and reinforce learning.  It’s when we are in this resting state that we are most creative, it’s when there is room for those sparks of creativity to occur, when the solution to the problem we’ve been unable to solve appears as if by magic.
Tony Schwartz, author, founder of The Energy Project, and considered to be one of the world’s thought leaders on building sustainable high performance, has noted that “More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace.”  We are encouraged to act as if our resources are infinite.  However, our primary go-to resource, time, is finite.  Historically, when we have more to do, we invest more hours in the task(s).  However, if you are like me, we’ve pushed adding hours to the limit.  We are investing about as many hours in our work as is conceivable if we are to retain some semblance of life outside of work.  While we may have reached the limit in the number of hours we are able to work, we can increase our energy which unlike time is renewable.  And, energy levels do strongly influence the results we are able to deliver.
The amount of sleep we get has a tremendous impact on the energy we have and on our performance.  A Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion each year in lost productivity.  Cherri Mah, Stanford researcher, discovered that if male basketball players sleep 10 hours each night, their free-throw and three-point shooting each increased an average of 9 percent.  Similar improvements in vigilance and reaction times were achieved with air traffic controllers when they were given an opportunity to nap during their shifts.
Athletes know that a greater demand for performance also creates a greater need for renewal.  However, when we’re under pressure most of us push harder rather than rest.  So, we further reduce the number of hours we sleep, and the quality of our performance goes down, and ultimately, we crash in one way or another.
The bottom line is that human beings are not designed to expend energy continuously.  We are designed to cycle between expending energy and recovering it.  In the 1950s, Nathaniel Kleitman, widely recognized as the father of sleep research, and his student William Dement discovered that we sleep in cycles – moving from light to deep and back to light sleep – every 90 minutes or so.  A decade later they discovered that a similar daytime cycle – moving from a state of alertness into physiological fatigue – occurs, also, about every 90 minutes.
So, while we regularly get a physical signal to take a break we often override these signals with caffeine, sugar, and our self-generated stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
Schwartz built these principles into how he writes.  He reports that for his first two books he sat at his desk working on the books for up to 10 hours per day and it took a year to write each of the books.  More recently, each day he wrote in three uninterrupted 90 minute sessions beginning early in the morning.  He took a break between each session.  And, he completed his last two books in less than six months.
He learned that the more rapidly and deeply he quieted his mind and relaxed his body the more restored he felt afterward.  As an example, during one of his daily breaks, he typically ran.
Christian Jarrett, psychologist turned writer and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology, has three suggestions for recouping your energy throughout the day:

  1.  Fully switch off during your breaks.  To switch off, you have to stop doing what you were doing as well as things like what you were doing.  For example, if you were checking references on-line while writing an article, surfing the web and/or playing video games, probably will not qualify for being fully switched off.  Research shows that using your lunch break to use your smart phone in contrast to talking with friends about non-work subjects, doesn’t qualify either.
  2.  Take short breaks early and often.  Research shows that we respond better to breaks in the morning, both physically and mentally.  The research also indicates that if you take frequent breaks they don’t need to be as long, even a few minutes of total disconnection may be sufficient.  (On the other hand, if you work for a long period before a break, it will need to be longer to experience the impact.  Perhaps, based on Schwartz’s model, as much as 30 minutes.)
  3. Get out of the office.  If your break is for longer than a few minutes, you need to get up from your desk and move into a different space.  Walk around the office or better still, go outdoors.  Jarrett and others say nothing beats getting outside.  My personal quick break is a 10-minute half-mile walk around my neighborhood.  It’s long enough to still my thoughts, give me a bit of exercise, and prepare me to get back on task.  And, as a bonus, I may have shaken loose a helpful thought from my sub-conscious brain.  A large number of studies have shown that a green environment really does give us a mental recharge. 

As you begin to wind down for the holiday season, I challenge you to take some time to begin to think about how you want to structure your work in the coming year.  To quote Jarrett:  “The psychological reality is that your mental and physical reserves are limited and it is only by taking frequent short breaks of a truly restful nature that you will fulfil your true potential.” So, make recharging a priority.  When you plan your day, insert the breaks you need into the schedule and take them.  If you do, it will be easier for you to reduce the amount of time you spend on your tasks, be kinder to your brain enabling it to reenergize to enable you to be more effective, and give you time to have more of a life outside of work.
You can make it a better week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Marty Jordan, Be still and be a better leader, Linkage Insights Blog, March 2015.
University of Virginia Study, People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts, The Atlantic, July 2014.
David Rock, Your Brain at Work – Strategy for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, HarperCollins, 2009.
Tony Schwartz, Relax!  You’ll Be More Productive, New York Times, February 2013.
Christian Jarrett, A Science-Backed Guide to Taking Truly Restful Breaks, 99U (undated).