One of the best things about Amy and Andrew, our meeting scheduling assistants, is they never take a break. They come to work every day, rain or shine, even on holidays, and they never go home, never take a lunch break, never goof off in the break room. That makes them fantastically productive, but it’s only possible because Amy and Andrew are autonomous artificial intelligence agents. People, on the other hand, need down time.
Recently, x.ai’s CEO Dennis Mortensen released the Time Lords manifesto, a list of rules about how to optimize your time so that you can reach your fullest potential. One of the most important points is the last one: “Create headspace.” Humans are not machines, and we need breaks.
That actually goes against our instincts, in some ways, especially if you work in a fast-paced or high pressure job (like at a quick moving startup). As things get tough, and deadlines pile up, our inclination is to work harder and longer, pushing through to get things done. But that doesn’t really work. “The trouble is that, without any downtime to refresh and recharge, we’re less efficient, make more mistakes, and get less engaged with what we’re doing,” says Tony Schwartz, founder of the productivity consulting firm The Energy Project. According to Schwartz, humans can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes at a time anyway. To stay energized, engaged, and productive, you need to take time away from your work every couple of hours (one study found frequent short breaks were more effective than few longer breaks).
But what should you do with those breaks? Here are some tips for making the most of them.
Go for a walk
Your brain isn’t the only thing that needs frequent rest. Your body is also not well-suited to non-stop work. Sitting for hours on end in front of your desk may not be the instant death sentence that media reports have made it out to be over the past few years, but it’s still a pretty bad idea. Part of the problem is that when we sit in front of a computer, we tend to hunch and compact our bodies, which leads to a whole host of potential issues from back and neck aches to poor circulation and muscle degeneration. Taking breaks to walk and stretch can help keep your body in good, working shape.
And going for a walk during your work breaks can also help the quality of your work. A 2014 Stanford study, for example, found a link between walking and improved creative thinking.
Other studies have found links between walking and mood elevation (and happier people are more productive). Even better: go outside and get closer to nature. Researchers are beginning to find links between contact with nature—whether that’s a hike in the wilderness or a stroll through an urban park—and stress alleviation and positive health outcomes.
Take a nap
Estimates put the amount of lost productivity due to poor sleep at $411 billion each year in the U.S. alone. One way to catch up on that sleep is by taking naps during the day. Napping isn’t always feasible (though some companies now encourage it), but it can have huge benefits for your work.
One meta-analysis of napping studies concluded that naps have a positive effect on alertness and performance, while another study found that brief, habitual napping can improve learning. There’s also evidence that napping during the workday can improve memory (and thus improve performance of tasks that require taking in new information).
The length of your nap matters, though. A 2006 study found that short naps (under 5 minutes) had basically zero effect, but 10, 20, and 30 minute naps increased performance and alertness. Just remember, longer naps require recovery time for “sleep inertia” to wear off before the effects of the nap took hold.
Mindfulness in general has become more popular over the past decade in the corporate world, so it should be no surprise that meditation is a positive way to spend your break time. Numerous studies have shown links between meditative practice and improved attention, mental agility, and memory function.
Meditation can feel daunting to people who have never done it, but as productivity expert Leo Babauta points out, you can begin a meditation practice by committing as little as 2 minutes per day. (And at least one study suggests that it’s more important to be consistent in your meditation practice than to meditate for a long period of time.)
Chat with coworkers
Generally, goofing off at work is frowned upon. But camaraderie between coworkers has a positive effect on performance. A 2008 study from MIT found that workers with more social connections at the office tend to be more productive, regardless of what they talked about with coworkers. Researchers theorized that chattier people likely form bonds that contribute to better work/life balance and higher levels of emotional support, which leads to less stress and thus more productivity. Chatting also helps those workers to learn, both implicitly and tacitly, how their coworkers will react in specific situations, which can have an impact on the quality of group projects.
Based on the MIT findings, the Bank of America call center where the research was conducted realigned employee breaks to coincide with one another, resulting in a productivity uptick estimated at $15 million. So next time you get up from the computer for a mind rest, consider chatting up a colleague about your most recent Netflix binge.
Do something you love
Whatever you do during your work breaks, make sure you enjoy it. According to research from Baylor University, employees got the most benefit from breaks that included something they looked forward to doing, even if that meant a work-related task. “Finding something on your break that you prefer to do—something that’s not given to you or assigned to you—are the kinds of activities that are going to make your breaks much more restful, provide better recovery and help you come back to work stronger,” explained researcher Emily Hunter.
The Baylor study also found that people who took those “better breaks” (the ones where effectiveness was maximized by performing a preferred activity) had better health and increased job satisfaction. That indicates that breaks not only have short-term benefits for your productivity and performance, but long-term benefits as well.
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