"Have you ever wondered what your LIFE would be like NOW if you have said YES or NO to all the DECISIONS that you have made either consciously or UNCONSCIOUSLY throughout your existence on this magnificent planet?" - HCW
WHY YOU NEED TO STOP THINKING YOU ARE TOO BUSY TO TAKE BREAKS
INSIDE THE SCIENCE OF WHY TAKING BREAKS CAN MAKE YOU HAPPIER, AND MORE FOCUSED AND PRODUCTIVE. STILL THINK YOU'RE TOO IMPORTANT?
BY COURTNEY SEITER
I know you don’t want to take a break right now.
Why? Because you’re too busy. This post is probably one of more than a few tabs you have open on your browser or phone. Your to-do list is likely close by and packed with tasks.
Sometimes we know there’s a better way to do things, but we’re just so busy we don’t even think we have the time to find it--so we keep going like we always have.
That’s how I saw things, too. And then I discovered the power of taking breaks at work. They made me happier, more focused and more productive--and I bet they can do the same for you, whether you’re in the corner office or a cubicle.
Come along and discover the science of why we need breaks at work, how to create your own master schedule and what to do on your hard-earned break.
1. Breaks keep us from getting bored (and thus, unfocused)
When you’re really in the groove of a task or project, the ideas are flowing and you feel great. But it doesn’t last forever--stretch yourself just a bit beyond that productivity zone and you might feel unfocused, zoned out or even irritable. What changes?
Basically, the human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days. Our brains are vigilant all the time because they evolved to detect tons of different changes to ensure our very survival. So focusing so hard on one thing for a long time isn’t something we’re ever going to be great at (at least for a few centuries).
The good news is that the fix for this unfocused condition is simple--all we need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track. University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras explains:
“…Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
2. Breaks help us retain information and make connections
Our brains have two modes: the “focused mode,” which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working) and “diffuse mode,” which is our more relaxed, daydreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard. You might think that the focused mode is the one to optimize for more productivity, but diffuse mode plays a big role, too.
In fact, although our brains were once thought to go dormant when we daydreamed, studies have shown that activity in many brain regions increases when our minds wander. Here’s a look at the brain scan of one daydreamer:
Some studies have shown that the mind solves its stickiest problems while daydreaming--something you may have experienced while driving or taking a shower. Breakthroughs that seem to come out of nowhere are often the product of diffuse mode thinking.
“When you’re focusing, you’re actually blocking your access to the diffuse mode. And the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem.”
3. Breaks help us reevaluate our goals
Harvard Business Review examines another prime benefit of breaks: they allow us to take a step back and make sure we’re accomplishing the right things in the right way.
When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives…
OK, so we know taking breaks is a scientifically proven method for regaining our focus, sharpness and motivation. But taking a walk or a reading break in the middle of a workday? Can we really get over how guilty that’ll make us feel?
A study of office workers and managers by Staples discovered that even though 66 percent of employees spend more than eight hours a day at work, more than a quarter of them don’t take a break other than lunch. One in five employee respondents said guilt was the reason they don’t step away from their workspaces.
And that’s with 90% of the bosses surveyed saying that they encouraged breaks and 86 percent of employees agreeing that taking breaks makes them more productive! It’s become normal to think that if you never take a break from work, you’ll get more done, get promoted and be more successful.
“When demand in our lives intensifies, we tend to hunker down and push harder,” says Tony Schwartz, head of New York City-based productivity consulting firm The Energy Project. “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.”
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets…It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
If all that doesn’t convince you, then consider the clientele of the aforementioned Schwartz at The Energy Project, which is designed to help companies to help them find a better way to work, including breaks. He counts Google, Apple, Facebook, Coca-Cola, Green Mountain Coffee, Ford, Genentech and a wide range of Fortune 500 companies as clients. Sounds like good company!
Ready to try breaks at work but not sure how to implement your schedule? Here are a few methods you might consider.
1. Pomodoro method
One of the most common ways to implement a schedule with breaks—especially when you’re busy—is to work in small bursts. The Pomodoro Technique is perfect for this. Just set a timer for 25 minutes, and when it goes off, take a short break for 5 minutes. Stretch your legs, grab a drink, or just sit back and relax. After you’ve done four Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break of 30 minutes or so.
Working in such compact time periods helps you get rid of distractions and focus more intently. I found that having a finite beginning and end to each chunk of work gave me a little edge of urgency–I closed out tasks more quickly and made the “little decisions” faster because I knew the clock was counting down.
2. 90-minute work blocks Want more time to dig in? Working in 90-minute intervals has long been a favorite method of maximizing productivity because it works with our bodies’ natural rhythms.
Sleep researchers William Dement and Nathan Kleitman first discovered the 90-minute pattern while studying the cycles by which we progress into sleep--but it persists when we’re awake, too, as we move from higher to lower levels of alertness. Other researchers have dubbed this the ultradian rhythm.
When Professor K. Anders Ericsson studied elite performers like violinists, athletes, actors and chess players, he found that the best performers practiced in focused sessions of no more than 90 minutes.
“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
3. The 52-17 method
A third option: split the difference between Pomodoro and 90-minute blocks with what recent research indicates could be the most productive schedule of all.
Using time-tracking and productivity app DeskTime, the Draugiem Group studied the habits of the most productive employees and learned that the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before getting back to it. The bottom line, they discovered, was working with purpose:
The reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.
Pro tip: For any of these timed methods, I like to add Focus Booster, an unobtrusive and handy timer app, to keep me on track.
4. Two 15-minute breaks per day
If a time-blocked day doesn’t appeal to you or work with your job, consider a simpler but still quite effective solution: blocking out two planned, 15-minute intermissions in your day—one in the mid-morning and the other in the mid-afternoon. Around 3 p.m. is the least productive time of day, so definitely don’t skip that break!
So you’ve realized the importance of breaks and added them into your day--hooray! Now: How to spend your well-deserved break? Here are a few suggestions, each with proven benefits!
Take a walk
A 20-minute stroll can increase blood flow to the brain, which can boost creative thought. Regular walks can enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits, combat age-related declines in brain function and improve memory and cognitive performance.
Daydreaming “leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment.”
Read a (non-work) book–especially fiction. Studies have shown that individuals who frequently read fiction are better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.
Get a coffee
OK, you probably already though of this break option. But are you timing your coffee breaks correctly? For people who wake up between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., the optimal times for consuming caffeine fall somewhere around 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
In one awesome study, participants performed better on a variety of tasks after looking at baby animal photos. Only baby animals will do the trick here–full-grown animal pics didn’t have the same effect.
If your workplace is super progressive, you can enjoy tons of benefits from even the tiniest midday nap. A nap of even 10 minutes has been shown to improve cognitive function and decrease sleepiness and fatigue.
When pilots were given a nap of 30 minutes on long flights, there was a 16 percent improvement in their reaction time. (Pilots who didn’t nap saw a a 34% decrease over the course of the flight.)
We’re big believers in naps at Buffer–you can catch a glimpse of the bunk beds for napping in Buffer’s office in this photo of Buffer founder Joel:
Yup, even hanging out with coworkers for a bit is a productive break! Research shows that talking with colleagues can increase your productivity. In a study of call center workers, those who talked to more co-workers were getting through calls faster, felt less stressed and had the same approval ratings as their peers.
One of the most powerful ways to relax your brain in a short amount of time is a session of meditation. In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).
Meditation lowers stress levels and improves overall health as well as creativity. (We’ve got a virtual meditation room at Buffer).
Plan something fun
Like a future trip or vacation. Research shows that anticipating a trip often makes people happier than the trip itself.
Go outside and see some nature
On a nice day, spend some time outside during your break–and try to find more natural and less urban settings. Spending time in nature is good for your immune system and has been shown to improve focus and relieve stress.
Especially if you look at a screen most of the day, your eyes could use a break. Use the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break for at least 20 seconds and look at objects that are 20 feet away from you.
That’s right; go ahead and check your Facebook account or take that personality quiz.Studies have shown that goofing off online for a few minutes can be just as productive a break as any other (and better than texting or sending emails) when it comes to refreshing your brain.
Do you take breaks regularly during the day? If so, what’s your schedule like and how do you use your break time? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
“I feel really lucky that I know how to talk to people now, because I’ve talked to so many people and I know how to get a conversation going. Because I used to be really shy and would have been very uncomfortable doing that.”
Good interviewers always study up on their subject’s background – many even have a staff whose job it is to collect those resources.
If you can do so in advance, research the person or people with whom you’ll be speaking. A bit of familiarity will make you feel more confident – and will prime your subject to open up to you.
But during the moment of truth, you rarely see a professional interviewer following a script or referring to notes. A better, more casual approach is to stay in the moment and allow talk to flow naturally, as TV talk show veteran Dick Cavett advises.
“My former boss and idol for many years as a viewer, Jack Paar, called me before I started doing a talk show and said, ‘Hey kid, don’t do interviews.’ And I said, ‘What do I do, then, sing or just read to the audience?’ And he said, ‘No, interviews are boring. That’s just ‘What’s your favorite color?’ and that’s dull. Make it a conversation.’ And that’s almost the best secret. Throw your notes aside, if necessary.’"
A good interviewer knows how to make subjects comfortable enough to open up and reveal something real and true about themselves--and that only comes when both parties get a little vulnerable. That’s why comedian Marc Maron, host of cult favorite podcast WTF, focuses more on connection than research.
“I don’t do a hell of a lot of research. I go on a sort of kindred-spirit bonding that preexists the interview, and just see what unfolds. I’m just looking for authentic engagement of some kind … Some people just want to answer questions, but a lot of times, all of a sudden you drift away, and you don’t remember you’re on the mic, and you’re in something real. That, to me, is great.”
Calibrating your tone and energy level sets the stage for an evenly matched conversation and puts your subject at ease, while mirroring the body language of the person you’re speaking with is a nearly subliminal cue to show that you’re fully present in the conversation. Just keep it subtle.
Body language can also help defuse a tough conversation or argument (try moving so you’re facing the same direction as the person in question) and let you know when your subject is ready to leave the conversation (Are their feet facing toward the door? Time to let them go).
Just as important, says Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, is matching the right line of questioning to the right subject. The best interviews are never one-size-fits-all.
“There’s no generic one question to me. It would depend who the person is. I think one of the things about interviewing is that you don’t ask the same thing of everyone. It would really depend. Is that person a painter? Are they an avant-garde jazz musician? Are they a politician, a priest? Who are they?”
What seems like the simplest part of holding a conversation or conducting an interview is often the trickiest. It’s listening--the right way.
Skilled interviewers become adept at listening not just to the words their subject is saying but also the tone in which the words are said, the pauses and nuances of the answer and what’s being left unsaid.
This active, flexible listening lets them know when to move onto a new subject and when the moment is ripe to probe a little deeper with a follow-up question.
Off-the-cuff questions often yield the best answers – but the opportunity only arises from deep, engaged listening. Take a lesson from Katie Couric and stay poised to change direction based on what happens in the conversation.
“Nothing is worse for me as a viewer than to watch someone go down a laundry list of questions and not explore something with a little more depth after someone has answered a question … I think you need to use your questions as sort of a template, but you have to be willing to listen and veer off in a totally different direction.”
Worried about going down too many conversational rabbit-holes and forgetting to pick back up on an important point? Try the “outrageous image” technique from Dick Cavett.
“Eventually, I developed a memory technique from my friend, Harry Lorayne, the memory expert, of creating an outrageous image. Like if they were caught stealing an apple as a kid, but then they start talking about something else, you picture picking up an apple and throwing it in the face of, I don’t know, Mitt Romney or some prominent person. And that sort of startling image will trigger 'apple' for you later on.”
“If you resist the temptation to respond too quickly to the answer, you’ll discover something almost magical. The other person will either expand on what he’s already said or he’ll go in a different direction. Either way, he’s expanding his response, and you get a clear view into his head and heart.”
Try counting to three – or five if you can stand it – after your subject answers a tough or thoughtful question. This method can seem agonizing at first, but – used with empathy – it works wonders to develop a deeper rapport between two people.
Since our natural tendency is to fill in a silence, the pause can also work as a power play in a tougher scenario – say, a salary negotiation. Dick Cavett explains how he employs it tough-love style with interview guests:
“You can hold someone with silence and make them go on. You tend to feel you need to fill all dead air. There are times when if you just say no more than ‘uh-huh,’ and pause, they’ll add something out of a kind of desperation that turns out to be pretty good. Let them sweat a little and then they’ll come up with something that they were perhaps not going to say.”
All of these techniques are tried and true, but they don’t really work without one simple quality on the interviewer’s part: curiosity.
A true passion for learning more about those around you goes further than any trick or even the most polished communication skills. Take it from Gay Talese, one of the legendary founders of literary journalism:
“I used to wander around. I never knew exactly what I was looking for. I knew vaguely what I hoped to find or I had some rough idea, but I was in the exploratory mode all the time … Just go out and discover and you’ll find by chance, by accident some terrific stories, some terrific people you never thought you would meet.”
You can cultivate curiosity in your daily life by noticing more details, delving deeply into the ideas that grab your interest and being alert to those around you and what makes them light up.
“Most times, when two individuals engage in a conversation, each patiently waits for the other person to be done with whatever story he or she is telling. Then, the other person tells his or her own story, usually on a related topic and often times in an attempt to have a better and more interesting story. Individuals practicing good ego suspension would continue to encourage the other individual to talk about his or her story, neglecting their own need to share what they think is a great story.”
At the next gathering you attend, resist the urge to tell that one story that always kills and instead focus on asking questions of someone new. It may be unfulfilling at first, but you might be amazed at the end result.
-- Courtney Seiter is a content crafter at Buffer--a smarter way to share on Twitter, Facebook and more. Read her posts about social media, productivity and marketing on the Buffer blog, or follow her on Twitter at @courtneyseiter.
One of the most important things I’ve learned during this time is that I perform the bestwhen I’m happy. It really does change everything. If I’m happy then I’m more productive when hacking code, I’m better at answering support, and I find it easier to stay focused.
I’ve found that there are a few key habits which, for me, act as great rituals for enabling me to be consistently happy. They also act as anchor activities to bring my happiness level back up quickly whenever I have a period where I’m not feeling 100%. Here are six of the things I do:
One of the things I love about running my own startup is that I have complete freedom to experiment with my daily routine.
Through experimentation, I’ve found that waking up early every day makes me feel most invigorated and happy. It gives me a great start to the day, and this almost always leads to a great rest of the day. Over time, I’ve found I crave that “early morning” feeling, a time I can do some great work and be super focused. Gretchen Rubin fromThe Happiness Project mentioned something similar a recent article:
“I get up at 6:00 a.m. every day, even on weekends and vacation, because I love it.”
Waking up early every day requires discipline, especially about what time I sleep. Right now, I have a sleep ritual of disengaging from the day at 9:30 p.m. and sleeping at 10 p.m. I now love all aspects of this ritual and with it in place I awake at 6 a.m. feeling fresh.
“We found that people who are more physically active have more pleasant-activated feelings than people who are less active”--Amanda Hyde
In the last three years, I’ve gone from dabbling with exercise to it becoming something I do every weekday without fail. At first I had no idea what to do at the gym, so I asked my brother, who’s a personal trainer. I then went a few times with a good friend and soon I was hooked.
Over time, I developed this into a daily ritual so strong that I feel a pull towards it, and by doing it consistently I feel fantastic and can more easily take on other challenges. I recently discovered that exercise is a keystone habit which paves the way for growth in all other areas. I’ve also found that it helps me to get high-quality sleep each night.
“The richest, happiest, and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal”--Loehr and Schwarz, The Power of Full Engagement
As I mentioned earlier, a key way I am able to wake up at 6 a.m. is through my ritual of disengaging in the evening. I go for a walk at 9:30 p.m., along a route which I’ve done many times before. Since the route is already decided and is the same every time, I am simply walking and doing nothing else. This prompts reflection and relaxation.
Various thoughts enter and leave my mind during the walk, and I’ve found this to be very healthy. Sometimes I think about the great things I enjoyed that day. Other times I will realise a change I should make in order to be happier day to day. I also feel calm and relaxed by the time I return from my walk, and I can therefore go straight to bed and fall asleep sooner than if I been engaged in my work and had closed my laptop only a few minutes earlier.
I read Ricard’s section on the link between altruism and happiness and everything clicked. Since then, I’ve been consistently helping many startup founders and it’s brought me much happiness through both the challenge of finding ways to help each person, and the feeling that comes when I help the other person discover ways to make faster progress with their current challenges.
“Being in the moment, focusing completely on a single task, and finding a sense of calm and happiness in your work. Flow is exactly that.”--Leo Babauta
One thing I’ve found during my time working on Buffer, is that a key reason I’ve been happy for most of that time is that I’ve consistently had new challenges to take on. It may seem odd that new challenges can equate to happiness, but it is the times when I’ve slipped into a few weeks of working on something I already know well, that have led me to feel less happy than I want to be.
I think a key part of why learning new skills can bring happiness, is that you need to concentrate in order to make progress. The “flow” state has been found to trigger happiness. In addition, when learning something new you are able to learn a lot in a short space of time due to a steep learning curve. For example, in the last two weeks I’ve started learning Android development from scratch and I’ve personally found incredible the amount I know now compared to nothing two weeks ago.
Since the above activities are habitual, many days of the week I actually accomplish all of them. If I succeed with all five, I have a truly amazing day and feel fantastic. I have goals for Buffer, and I have goals in my weights routine too. In addition, I try to schedule one or two meetings or Skype calls to help people each day. I do this based on learning from around a year ago through an interview Tim Ferriss had with Matt from 37signals. I’ve mentioned it before on my blog, but it’s so good that I want to repeat it:
“If your entire ego and identity is vested in your startup, where there are certainly factors outside of your control, you can get into a depressive funk that affects your ability to function. So, you should also, let’s say, join a rock climbing gym. Try to improve your time in the mile. Something like that. I recommend at least one physical activity. Then even if everything goes south--you have some horrible divorce agreement with your co-founder--if you had a good week and set a personal record in the gym or on the track or wherever, that can still be a good week.”
So if I start my morning with a gym routine, work on the new Buffer for Business we just launched for example during the day and help two people during lunch, I have four chances to have a great day. It almost always works.
Are there any key activities or habits you’ve found bring you happiness? I’d love to hear from you.
--Joel Gascoigne is the founder and CEO at Buffer. He is focused on the lean startup approach, user happiness, transparency & company culture. Say hi to him anytime@joelgascoigne.