Swamped? Why Taking a Break Will Boost Your Productivity

Nov 28, 2016
Post Masthead

How often do you find yourself in this situation:

You have a big pile of work to do and are extremely conscious of looming deadlines. You set aside a chunk of time - if you work solidly throughout the day, surely you can knock those tasks out, right?

The only problem is, you find yourself staring at your screen, getting easily distracted or generally feeling that you’ve devoted a whole lot of time to something, yet achieved very little.

If you’ve done your best to create the right work environment and are usually quite disciplined about your work, these symptoms are often a sign that you need to be taking more breaks.

This might sound counter-intuitive to the busy person, but while our culture tends to prize being “busy”, we often seem to forget that busy does not automatically equal productive. If you’ve worked yourself to the point where it seems you’re still not getting anywhere, you probably need the reset that a break can provide.

In fact, science backs this up, too. Let’s take a look at why taking a break will actually boost your productivity:

Improve your focus

Intuitively, you probably already realize this without needing any kind of confirmation from scientists. When you try to focus on doing the same thing for a long time, you reach a point where your attention wanders and your performance on the task starts to decline.

Studies have found that the performance of tasks over a long period of time significantly improves for those who take breaks. This is linked this to the way our brains process information; we’re designed to detect respond to changes.

If we spend prolonged periods on the same task, that task starts to become habituated and no longer registers as stimulus for the brain, much like how most of us don’t notice the sensation of our clothes against out skin.

Taking a break allows us to improve focus, most likely because it gives the brain new stimulus. It doesn’t even have to be a long break - the studies above used short breaks and saw participants successfully keep up their focus.


Reboot cognitive energy

Forget alcohol, did you know that doing overtime can have a hangover effect on the body that can last for days? The Atlantic references a few studies that back up the fact that the best way to harness productivity is to work in short bursts with deliberate breaks. Those long days you end up trying to pull when deadlines are imminent will cost you for days to come.

The more we learn about human attention, the more we find that it has limitations. Not only do we need breaks during our work day, we need to take vacations, too. “Just as small breaks improve concentration, long breaks replenish job performance.” (The Atlantic)

If you find you just can’t get into your groove at work and it’s a regular occurrence, ask yourself, when was the last time you actually took a vacation? Freelance writer Michael Taft described to Ferris Jabr for Scientific American a “base level of mental tension and busyness” that starts to evaporate when you take a decent break away.

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.” (Scientific American)

Stoke the creative fuel

No matter how hard you try to keep going, if your tank is empty you’re going to struggle to produce any creative work.

When I used to work in a corporate role as an analyst, the long hours and culture of “busyness” would take its toll. I knew when I was lagging, but this was never questioned as long as you were at your desk and therefore “working.”

It turned out there were others on the team who felt exactly the same way, and when we decided to take 10 minute coffee breaks together, magic happened. We’d return to our desks fueled up, and with new ideas to get going. It wasn’t that we’d necessarily talked about the specifics of our projects, but taking that step away and hearing some new perspectives helped to jog our creativity and jumpstart productivity.

For anyone in a work environment that frowns upon taking breaks:

  1. That’s just not healthy, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate?
  2. Try pointing out to your boss that you’re actually more productive after a break (because, science!).
  3. Taking the time to have a chat with colleagues can actually be very productive! Despite our best intentions, we often end up talking about work-related things anyway and get the opportunity to hear new ideas.

Re-evaluate your goals

Harvard Business Review looked at a few studies on the benefits of breaks, including one we often don’t really consider.

Breaks give you the opportunity to re-evaluate your goals.

If you try to work through continuously, it’s often the case that you end up lost in the weeds - you need that precious time to step away and take in the broader picture, contributing to overall better performance.

They advocate for taking 15 minute breaks during your work day, though point out that of course the challenge for most people is fitting those in and sticking to them. They suggest blocking out one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon 15 minute break on your calendar, to encourage yourself to stick to it.

Another important part is to plan to do something active, such as taking a walk during that time. You could even set yourself little fitness challenges (there are plenty of four or five minute workout routines to be found online) or simply use the time to run an errand. The point is that you take a break away from your screen so that you’re able to refocus.

Problem-solve (even unconsciously)

Have you ever found yourself stuck trying to figure out a solution for something? It often seems that the harder you try, the less you can come up with to solve the problem.

On the other hand, have you also noticed that you might have a sudden epiphany while taking a shower, daydreaming or doing other activities that help your brain to relax? Scientific American points to studies that show the mind can obliquely solve tough problems while daydreaming.

You could think of it a bit like how your computer might run an update during downtime; your brain has been shown to do the same thing when it comes to consolidating recently accumulated data. While we relax or sleep, the brain rehearses recently learned skills, etching them in. Several studies have shown the importance of sleep for memory and learning, so if you’re in sleep deficit while trying to get a lot of work done, it may actually be more productive for you to take a nap or go to bed early.


Final Thoughts

When you’re swamped with work, it’s natural to assume that you just need to knuckle-down and try to get through it. The main problem with trying to do so is that the human brain can only focus for so long before it starts to trail off and productivity takes a dive.

There have been many studies into the benefits of taking breaks, including short breaks during your work day and the importance of taking vacations. The bottom line from all of them is, if you want to be more productive, take your breaks!

Give your brain the chance to recharge and refocus. In the case of vacations, give yourself the chance to decompress and replenish your stores of attention and motivation. Your overall ability to be productive will be much more enhanced when you take a proper time-out.