We’re an industrious people, and the thought of long hours and hard work doesn’t just excite some of us; it motivates us to do better. Far as I’m concerned, I’ll sleep when I’m dead. That said, it’s not just about working harder; it’s about working smarter.
There’s a lot that goes into being as productive as we can be, and, believe it or not, part of that includes our willingness to take a break. It may sound counterintuitive, but time and time again, science has proven that taking periodic rests or breaks can actually lead to higher productivity. After all, we can’t be on if we don’t turn it off every once in a while, right? Here’s what we mean…
1. Brief diversions vastly improves focus
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that people who take a 10-minute break every hour—yes, every hour—perform better than those who keep working without one. As it happens, taking a break allows people to come back to their job with more focus.
In a more complex explanation, Alejandro Lieras, the University of Illinois psychology professor who leads the research group that conducted the study, found that, after time, our brains gradually become “habituated” to the task at hand.
Lieras and his team studied 84 people and found that those who took a brief break every hour didn’t decline in the performance of a particular task. At the same time, those in another group who worked straight through became less and less proficient as time went on.
2. The daydream is powerful
The daydream is something educators and employers have dreaded since the beginning of time but, believe it or not, daydreams are actually very valuable problem-solving tools. Have you ever had an idea or an answer to a problem come to you during a long, monotonous drive or in the shower? It’s not uncommon.
Psychologists from the University of British Columbia performed a study that found the regions of our brain associated with complex problem solving—once thought to be inactive when daydreaming—are actually extremely active when our brains are “at rest.” Suppose you’re experiencing some mental blockage or can’t seem to work your head around a difficult problem. In that case, a good daydream may be exactly what you need.
3. It’s important to step back and reevaluate your goals
This is perhaps one of the most self-evident points on this list because it’s something that has happened to all of us. You’re at work or home, and you’re wrapped up in a project—whether it’s a home DIY renovation or a massive work deadline, or even a conversation you’re having with a friend or colleague.
You work and work and work (or talk and talk and talk), and by the time you take a second to look at what you’ve done, you realize that you’re somewhere out in the left-field; you’ve completely lost focus of the task you were working on. Taking a second to step back and regroup helps us reevaluate our work and our goals and see if we’re accomplishing what we set out to do in the ways we set out to do them.
This same sentiment is shared in a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Journal called “Schedule a 15-Minute Break Before You Burn Out.”
4. After 90 minutes, you’ll probably hit a work block
For years, we’ve known that the average human sleep cycle is about 90 minutes, but what we didn’t know is that cycle doesn’t just end when we wake. Called our “ultradian rhythm,” this movement is geared for high and low alertness.
After 90 minutes, your body starts depending on its natural adrenaline, which lowers the prefrontal cortex activity—the area of the brain responsible for things like problem solving, reason, logic, memory, and planning. It’s fucking science, bud.
5. If you take breaks, you work harder in the long run
Tony Schwartz, head of a New York City-based productivity consulting firm, told Fortune, “What’s at risk when employees are overworked and stressed out is their capacity to do great work.” Schwartz says that even though employees’ first inclinations when the going gets tough is to plant their feet and work harder, the reality is that without any downtime or rest, they’re less efficient, less engaged in what they’re doing.
They ultimately end up making more mistakes and doing less high-quality work. It’s a paradox. By pushing people to work too hard, you actually wind up making them work less.