Most of us are trying to be more productive. As a result, our calendars often look like the reservation book of the hottest new restaurant. But our back-to-back meetings and constant workflow might be backfiring.
According to MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Bob Pozen, author of the bestselling book Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, taking regular timeouts can help you refresh your focus and get more done. In a recent Fast Company article, Pozen says that the question to ask is not how many breaks you should take in a day, but “what is the appropriate time period of concentrated work you can do before taking break?”
Pozen suggests taking a time-out every 75 to 90 minutes. He comes to this duration based on studies of professional musicians, who are most productive when they practice for this amount of time in a single sitting. In addition, research by Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working, shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes.
“Working for 75 to 90 minutes takes advantage of the brain’s two modes: learning or focusing and consolidation,” says Pozen. “When people do a task and then take a break for 15 minutes, they help their brain consolidate information and retain it better.” (Pozen teaches in the two-day MIT Sloan Executive Education program Maximizing Your Personal Productivity: How to Become an Efficient and Effective Executive.)
Another way to think about workflow is in “sprints.” The Fast Company article cites an experiment by software startup Draugiem Group that found the most productive workers took regular and frequent breaks, working in 52-minute sprints with 17-minute breaks. (The study was conducted using the time- and productivity-tracking app DeskTime).
Time management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, also encourages breaks that are proactively planned. These breaks can still involve work on some level, she suggests, but they do need to get you away from your primary mode of work and add to your energy level; for example, grabbing a coffee with someone you're mentoring or an afternoon walk with a direct report.
While not all schedules lend themselves to regular breaks at regular times, Vanderkam encourages making use of found time whenever possible—for example, taking advantage of a canceled meeting to catch your breath, even for just five minutes. Or, deciding to use the first 20 minutes of a plane flight to read a book before getting back to work.
Unfortunately, it’s also true that not all leaders or corporate cultures endorse frequent breaks. “Managers need to accept there’s nothing wrong with breaks per se,” MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Tara Swart and author of Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the Brain Gain Advantage tells Raconteur. “What they should encourage, however, is proper task-switching. Moving from working on a computer to browsing online is still being on a computer. The best thing for staff is to go for a walk and talk to people.” (Dr. Swart is a practicing neuroscientist, medical doctor, and leadership coach who leads the Executive Education programs Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People.)
A great morning break might include meditation, talking to a friend, helping a coworker, or even engaging in goal setting, but afternoon breaks are more important and need certain activities, says Pozen. “Our body energy goes down during this time, and a break can reenergize you,” he says.
So, if you’re looking for ways to rev up your productivity in 2018, be mindful of the fact that hours worked is not equivalent to productivity gained. “We need to do away with time as a success metric,” says Pozen.
To accomplish more, give yourself a break.