Eventually, no matter how much you enjoy it, work gets exhausting. Your eyes start drooping, your mind starts wandering, you get more easily stressed in your day-to-day life, you have trouble keeping your head together, etc, etc. Almost everyone has experienced this. Most of us handle that by going home at the end of the day, and maybe taking breaks and maybe drinking coffee, but the fact of the matter is that a) it’s important to not be exhausted and b) you can get part of the way there by taking breaks.
Sometimes, we feel guilty about that. It’s really easy to categorize work as productive and anything that’s not work as not productive - unfortunately, sometimes that second category expands to include taking a walk, getting lunch, closing your eyes, looking at your phone, thinking about things that aren’t work, and really just a whole bunch of things that are not only really difficult to avoid, but kind of fundamental to happiness.
But taking breaks is making you more productive! Work isn’t a 100-meter sprint - it’s a marathon, and to keep your energy reserves up you can’t be going full speed all the time. According to the University of Amsterdam, taking a break reduces the need for recovery, and approves engagement with work. Additionally, there’s a host of research, including from the New Jersey Institute of Technology to suggest that not only is your brain active when you’re doing nothing at all, but that there’s a specific default mode network (DMN) that fires up when you’re not mentally “active”. Not only does this help you form a sense of identity, solidify a code of ethics (for example, when you start arguing with yourself in the mirror), and otherwise process your life, but there is an array of evidence to suggest that downtime helps you think, helps you practice creativity, and helps you come to epiphanies, in the same way that we tend to think better after we’ve had a good night’s sleep. It’s the same system!
At the same time, there is a host of evidence suggesting that during the day, the more messages you have to check, the more emails you answer, the more tasks you switch between - the less productive you are. That’s even why we are building Beams (especially our Focus App)!
So next up -
We’re going to refer to a productive, short, different activity as a micro break from here on out.
Where I would argue the distinction between a micro break and a distraction lies is in the amount of focus required to truly context switch. If you were working on a spreadsheet, you might have to keep track of several different kinds of data. You might be thinking about calculations, and exceptions to those calculations - and if you switch to writing an article, it will take you maybe 10, 15 minutes to get fully on board with arguments, and evidence, and what exactly you’re trying to say. You can alleviate some of that burden by diligently writing down what you’re doing, but that doesn’t really save you from the burden of recalling what in the world you were thinking two hours, or two days, or two weeks ago. The bigger and more complex the task is, the more difficult the switch is.
For example, getting a cup of coffee doesn’t require that much thinking.
Try to be conscious about the kind of break you’re taking, and then take it. And then get back to absorbing yourself in the task you actually want to accomplish.
If you’re worried about it, or if you struggle with that, there are plenty of tools and tricks that can help you re-engage or stay engaged. You could use the Pomodoro technique to block out times in which it’s a good idea to work, and a good idea to take a break. You could also take advantage of Beams - we make it easy to keep track of what has to be done and when, and our Focus application lets you block out distractions and neatly segment your time.
The three big rules are
- Have Fun!
You may have noticed your brain tends to activate when you go on a walk.
This is only typical. A host of studies show that taking a walk as short as 5 minutes can improve mood and attention (University of Illinois), creativity (Stanford), memory (European Journal of Developmental Psychology), and decreases brain degeneration long term (a different University of Illinois study). At least one of those studies comes with a placebo and takes place indoors as well, so you could bully your friend into walking on a treadmill daily and it would still probably help him out.
And think about it! Exercising is brain-blank time. It gives you time to think, it gives you a bunch of endorphins so you’re having fun thinking (or not thinking), it gives you an opportunity to not be sitting in the same chair in the same position for the fourth hour, and it activates that whole DMN system that brings out all that sleep-genius.
Talking to people is great! Humans are social animals, so it makes us happy and gives us content to process our own lives.
And in a work sense - yes, you should still socialize! Taking the time to talk to people is beneficial to your work in several ways - a Gallup Organization study of more than 5 million workers found that 56% of people who say they have a best friend at work are productive, as opposed to 8% of people who said they didn’t. And similarly, a study from MIT found that not only does giving employees breaks together improve productivity, but that the strength of the social group was positively correlated to productivity. What this tells us is that getting to know your coworkers is an endgame in terms of productivity - we actually seek to not only talk to our coworkers, but forge strong connections and relationships, which helps us to care about our work, and feel good in our work. Also, it helps with networking 😄
So - talk to your coworkers. Make friends, go to lunch, get a coffee together (that MIT study emphasized the importance of coffee breaks), and don’t let them bother you when you’re supposed to be working, because it still is actually important to work asynchronously - and if you want to read more at that, have a look at How To Tame Slack. Make sure your breaks are voluntary, and fun. Which brings us to -
The most important rule of all! A big part of why exercising and socializing work so well is because they are fun. It doesn’t really matter if you aren’t an athlete or you’re generally a loner, it’s more that in contrast to your work - exercising and socializing are refreshing contrasts that make up fundamental blocks in the human experience.
And yes - having fun improves your productivity. You can probably already guess at that based on how well you do in a work environment that you actually enjoy as opposed to a productivity dungeon without natural lighting. Breaks play a big role in letting you actually enjoy what you do, so it’s probably a good idea to take that step for yourself as well, instead of leaving it at the will of your work hours. In fact, study from the University of Melbourne shows that leisure browsing actually increases productivity and task vigilance as opposed to less pleasurable breaks. I would argue that everything we’ve said about context switches still holds - but the fact that the participants had an improved work environment as a result made them more productive despite the switches.
Yes, you should take a break. You can take a walk, talk to friends, plan a fun activity together, even doodle on the internet if you want (though we don’t advise that so much). It’s still worth it, even if the deadline is tight. The deadline can always be tight! Your work will be higher quality, higher quantity, and just plain easier for you to do. If you struggle to remember - timeblock, send yourself a message, make a plan, get a friend to remind you, etc.
Happy working (and not working)!