Leadership

Why You Should Take A Break From Work & Do Nothing

by Katarzyna Nawrocka

Whenever we fall into a productive period (like some of us probably did a couple of weeks ago when the world basically went on lockdown), it’s easy to go beast-mode and pretend you can power through everything, no sweat. Breaks? What breaks? We’re not amateurs, we do great without them. They’re a waste of our precious time anyway.

Well, are they? Or are they an essential part of living an active life full of day-to-day tasks? In this article, I’ll show you why you should kick back every once a while (how often? I’ll highlight some of the theories as well) and prove it’ll actually do you good. It may even save some time in the long run!

The No-Break, No-Fail Plan

To-do lists are definitely one of the most basic (and the best!) tools for productivity. Writing down a bunch of tasks to conquer, then nailing them one by one - is there anything easier than this?! We often push our lists to the limits, and I’m not speaking about the physical limit of a piece of paper.

I’m not saying you should procrastinate and shy away from tackling important stuff that’s been long overdue (there’ll never be a good time for filing your tax, trust me on this). But cramming ten projects into one day may be a little bit too much, even if you’re excited about it at first.

Don't fall into the productivity trap. Handling 10 projects at once will probably leave absolutely zero break time.

I’ve been there too. Achieving so much so quickly actually felt good for a day or two (I’m this kind of person who gets ecstatic over an emptied bottle of milk, let alone a task crossed off the list). Then I started suffocating. Looking at my to-dos felt overwhelming, and I felt like I can’t sit down for a second because I’ll waste my precious time. On the other hand, though, when I’d go ahead with one task, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I needed a break, yet I felt so lame for craving one. Sounds familiar?

Go Ahead, Take That Break

Our brains are unable to work at the highest capacity for longer periods. Actually, they can’t stay focused for more than an average of between 15 and 40 minutes! After our attention span passes, distractions become harder to ignore, and our motivation goes down the drain.

Studies show that our bodies function within a natural rhythm. I’m sure you’ve heard about sleep patterns, periods of a deep sleep, etc., but do you know that this concerns the day as well? Our energy level varies throughout the day, and it has little to do with how well you’ve slept or how tiring activities you’ve performed before. In the morning, our brain demands sleep every 90 minutes. Trying to push past this plateau will only result in lower concentration and longer reaction time - you can even experience microsleeps (very short periods, up to 10 seconds, when your brain acts like it’s asleep). That’s why taking a 15-minute break at least every 1,5 hour is vital (some will tell you it’s best to take a power nap at this point, but let’s not go this far).

A moment of relaxation does wonders for your brain but also relieves your eyes and muscles (remember to get up & away from your monitor!). For those of you who need to make quite a few decisions throughout the day, loosening up for a second can be a potent cure for that decision fatigue and keep your motivation up.

A Break A Day

A ton of people believes that taking a short break makes them look lazy. After all, ‘doing nothing’ is taboo in most workplaces. But what if I told you you’re not actually doing ‘nothing’?

There are multiple metaphors for how the brain behaves when you exercise it, but I’ll stick with the rubber band one. If you use a rubber band for a long time, it stretches up to a point when it’s hardly even usable and can easily break. But if you put it away for some time, it should come back to its original shape, ready for the next time you need it.

Your brain is pretty much like that rubber band. It needs a refresh every once in a while, so without going into details: you need rest in the same way you need a shower to stay fresh.

Taking a break doesn’t mean you’re doing nothing. You’re refreshing your brain so it could function better, and that’s definitely not ‘nothing.’

The Infamous Coffee Break

Every training or conference you attended had coffee breaks, hadn’t it? Have you ever wondered why?

Sip your coffee AND process what you've just learned - a break is actually designed so you can do both!

Well, yes, it’s there so you could have coffee (duh), stretch your legs a bit and use the restroom (and officially catch up on social media). But its primary goal is to consolidate what you’ve learned and boost memory formation. Of course, this works best when you’re asleep, but scientists have proved that a simple short break from studying is enough for your brain to process the new information and find a space to store it. If you’ve ever had someone advise you not to pull an all-nighter before an exam, now you know what they meant.

While this concerns training and learning sessions mostly, you still may experience tiny studying sessions during your day-to-day work. Taking extra time to store the new information properly will not only help you process it but also save you the time of reading through the same instruction the next day because you don’t remember it at all!

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

The same goes for the lunch break you’ve probably been ignoring for months. Chaining yourself to a desk for multiple hours and washing down your sad, cold lunch hits close to home, doesn’t it? It’s easy to sacrifice this part of the day for the greater good of nailing that presentation or polishing up that long email to your most important client.

The truth is, it’s a recipe for disaster. On top of that fast concentration drop and multiple health risks, ditching breaks means you’re more likely to get chronically stressed and, as a result, suffer from job burnout.

I have to say that it’s the classic case of easier said than done. Nearly 20% of US workers worry about being judged for not working hard enough if they take their lunch break. Surprisingly, a very similar percentage of bosses admit that they perceive their team members as less hardworking if they take regular lunch breaks. The modern world doesn’t encourage us to kick back even for a second, let alone going out to get lunch!

A sandwich, a box of leftovers from last night, takeaway or pizza day - anything goes as long as you actually go on a lunch break.

So, this is also a shoutout to all the leaders: send your employees on lunch breaks. Force them if needed. We need to turn that mindset of ‘stick at your desk where you can be seen’ around.

For The Last Time: You’re Not Lazy For Taking A Break

Did you just pat yourself on the back because you took your lunch break today? Congrats. But do you go on any other breaks?

I sense that you’re silent. Apparently, only 1 in 4 people take other breaks during the day! I can’t blame them - if one in five bosses see taking a breather as a risk, you certainly don’t want to fall into their disfavor. On the other hand, I’ve already mentioned that breaks are in fact crucial when it comes to your health. Taking care of your body, especially the spine and the eyes, may not sound like a priority right now, but it’ll make all the difference in the future.

So, another shoutout to all the managers and decision-makers: promote breaks. Encourage your teams to get up from their desks and make sure they know you’re okay with it. Staring at them while they lounge on a couch or coming up to them to discuss something work-related may not be the best idea.

Okay, But What Exactly Is A ‘Break’?

It’s okay, don’t feel bad for asking. After all, there is a break, and then there is a break. (I feel like it’s something Ross Geller would say.)

If you're looking for fun and valuable activities to do while taking a break, call your mom. +10 to being a good kid.

Scientists would argue over the precise nature of an ideal break, but one is for sure: if you’re still working, it’s not a break. You may feel tempted to tackle the less-demanding tasks of your workday, such as sorting through papers or decluttering your inbox, but that’s not the right way to relax. Make sure you’re staying as far away from work as possible.

Can you check the Internet for private stuff? Sure, if you feel like it’s a break for you, go for it. But a South Korean study proves that the best kind of break is a tech-free one. Going out for a walk, reading a newspaper, or doing a couple of pushups are said to increase vigor and reduce emotional exhaustion.

Allow Yourself To Do Nothing

Did you just go back to your busy schedule and did some magic to squeeze in some breaks? Great.

Did you just come back from this scheduled break only to find yourself struggling again? Is your creativity, like, level zero right now? Good.

That’s why, apart from taking a break, sometimes you need to be bored as well. Can you get bored in 15 minutes? I can’t. If I scheduled a short break for myself, I’d find plenty of little tasks to do. I’d probably even be surprised that this time has passed so quickly.

Necessity is the mother of invention, some might say, but boredom is its father. If you’ve ever scratched your head for hours, looking for a solution to a complex problem, then had an “aha!” moment in the middle of lounging around in your PJs on a Saturday, you know what I’m talking about.

Ask a colleague to grab a good old cup of Joe together to make a great break for both of you.

So, Cut Yourself Some Slack

I hope I’ve at least inspired you to think about your day and your goals. Big changes usually take some time, so don’t feel bad if you can’t jump from 24 hours on the clock to being crowned the king of slackers. Start by implementing small, healthy habits (like actually taking that lunch break and stepping away from your monitor).

If you feel like you need assistance, try using your calendar to schedule work-free times and set up a reminder so you will really go on that break! Alternatively, find a colleague you’d like to spend more time with and set up an appointment with them. Just make sure it’s not about work. Try to stay away from office gossip, discussing strategies, preparing for the conference call, etc. Let your mind relax instead, and get to know your work buddies!

Breaks are not for amateurs and are definitely not a waste of time. It may sound unproductive to kick back for a while, but it makes the brain more efficient in the long run!

What's your rule of thumb when it comes to breaks? 5 min after each 25, Pomodoro style? Or just a nice & long chilling lunch break? Let me know how you maintain that balance!

Katarzyna Nawrocka

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