Take a break to be more productive at work

Some Japanese companies allow employees to take a 30-minute nap to beat the mid-afternoon slump; studies show this increases productivity by 30 percent

Sapience Analytics
Updated: Mar 30, 2016 08:34:27 AM UTC

Sapience Analytics, founded in 2009, has developed a patent‐pending software product that helps build a Mindful EnterpriseTM, and thereby ensures that employees and teams can achieve significant productivity improvement coupled with greater work-life harmony. The software aims to achieve more at work with reduced stress by adopting mindful work techniques. Sapience was named last month as a Gartner Cool Vendor in Content and Social Analytics, and is the recipient of several industry awards for its innovation and fast growth, including TiE50 (at TiEcon, Silicon Valley, California – 2014), Frost & Sullivan (Product Innovation - 2014), Dun & Bradstreet (Best Emerging India SME – 2013), NASSCOM (India’s Top 10 – 2013), IDG Channel World (50 Hot Global Companies - 2013), iSPIRT (InTech50 – 2015 and 2014) and Red Herring (Asia Top 100 tech start-up - 2011).

You will probably be surprised if we say that training yourself for productivity is, in some ways, like preparing for a marathon—but bear with us. Along with the physical training, marathon training regimes demand periods of rest between the runs so that the muscles can rest, recover and then perform optimally. Just like our muscles need rest in between periods of intense physical activity, our brain too needs rest while working to increase mental acuity, increase alertness and reduce mental fatigue. In fact, National Institutes of Health (NIH) research reveals that taking micro breaks that range from 3 seconds to 5 minutes alone can improve mental acuity by about 13 percent.

Whether we realise it or not, the brain is one of the most energy-intensive organs in the body. While it constitutes only 2 percent of the entire body mass, it consumes over 20 percent of the energy in the body. It seems clear that if we don’t give our mind scheduled and timely breaks, fatigue and boredom set in inevitably leading to more errors and lower productivity.

Quite a few studies show just how taking breaks is essential to improve performance and productivity. For instance, studies by the University of Canterbury and also the University of Illinois proved that taking timely breaks improved mental agility. One of the studies conducted by the University of Canterbury also showed that the longer the time taken to perform a task, the longer the break should be in order to prevent a decline in efficiency and performance. So what constitutes an effective break and how long should it be?

The productive break Now that we have spoken of the science behind the perfect break we need to plan it. Can all breaks be ‘good’? Can we make our breaks ‘productive’? While these questions might sound counter-intuitive they do have more than a grain of truth in them. Taking a break and then obsessing over the work that needs to be done, or fine tuning your to-do list when you finally take a break after a marathon work run can in fact be counter-productive. A break is ‘productive’ only when you disconnect from the work that you are doing and indulge in any other activity that takes your mind off the task at hand. Whether it is a chat with office mates, a quick walk, or relaxing and reading a book… your break should consist of what you choose to do and what you like to do, so that your mind can ready itself for the next work period.

It also becomes essential to identify your productive hours—one where your work efficiency is at its peak and one where you seem to slack. Scheduling the longer work breaks during the hours when your efficiency is lower is a constructive way of utilising the time at hand to charge your batteries. Similarly, scheduling the more difficult tasks during your peak productive hours and readjusting your priorities so that you can manage them effectively will help you cut through your to-do list with ninja-like precision.

How long should a break be?
So what is the ideal length of a break? The jury is still out on this one as there are numerous studies, each ‘proving’ the ideal break time. Some swear by the Pomodoro technique where you work for 25 minutes and then take a ten-minute break. Some studies suggest addressing the most critical tasks of that day without any interruptions for 96 minutes and then taking a break will help you stay most efficient. Others suggest taking a 15-second break to look away from the computer every ten minutes will relieve fatigue by almost 50 percent. Taking a five-minute break every hour can also help employees, especially knowledge workers, become more productive as it helps address physical problems such as the wrist, forearm, and hand discomfort.

In fact, there are some companies in Japan that allow their workers to take 20 to 30-minute naps to beat the mid-afternoon slump as this has apparently been shown to increase the productivity of employees by over 30 percent. The choices are many—rather than prescribe any one way let’s just say that you have to pick the method that works for you. The basic idea here is to be hyper-focussed on the task that you are working on for a specified period of time and then take an intentional break to help your mind relax.

Applying mindfulness to the art of breaks
We have often said that mindfulness helps you at work—no reason it shouldn’t help you at rest too. In order to ensure that we get the most out of our breaks, it is important that we allow our mind to completely disengage from thinking about work. This can be achieved by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about being in the present.

The focus is on the ‘now’ and not the ‘next’. Since the mind is used to an enormous amount of thinking all the time, it is not able to get the rest it needs even when we are not working. Mindful practices will help you open up your awareness to the present moment and help you keep your focus on what’s happening at the moment—and not what has passed or what is going to happen.

Of course, taking a break is not an individual responsibility alone. Often people do not take breaks because they fear being perceived as slackers or not hard working enough. It thus becomes an organisational responsibility to help employees break free from these preconceived notions. The objective is to help the employees work smarter, be more productive and more energised at work.

- By Shirish Deodhar, CEO & Co-Founder, Sapience Analytics

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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