High-quality breaks: the secret to solving unproductivity and poor wellbeing at work. Not too long ago I was working on a really chunky article. I had set the deadline myself, but for a reason unbeknownst to me now, had left it to the last minute. Not wanting to let anybody down, I started work at 7 and ploughed through the piece. By 6pm, the article was done. To all intents and purposes, I had been really ‘productive’ – but I felt absolutely terrible. I was exhausted, cranky and hungry for the rest of the evening. Even worse, the next day, I still felt so worn out from my 11 hour day that I barely got anything done.
For some reason, this way of working – long hours sat at a desk, churning out work – has become the pinnacle of productivity. But too many days like this are a surefire path straight to burnout, and they’re certainly not productive in any sustainable or healthy sense of the word.
But unproductivity is a spectrum. On the opposite side to overwork and burnout is demotivation and lack of focus and direction. Even the easiest tasks feel like wading through treacle. You find yourself booking dental appointments to avoid checking your emails, or browsing news sites you’d otherwise avoid entirely. This kind of unproductivity brings more guilt and shame, as we can’t lean on the cult of busyness like we often do with the former.
But let’s change direction for a moment. I want you to think about a different kind of day. A day where we hit that beautiful state of flow, where tasks seem to whizz off the to-do list and we’re proud of what we’re achieving. The best part about those days is that we feel content at the end of them, ready to enjoy the evening ahead.
What if we could actively create these better, more productive work days? And what if the answer to all our hopes and dreams is almost ridiculously obvious?
The simple solution is regular breaks.
I know I just called them the ‘secret to solving’ our productivity and wellbeing problems – sue me – but breaks are not a panacea (is anything?). What they are is a very strong weapon in the war against not only unproductivity, but also it’s common bedfellows: poor mental and physical wellbeing.
The benefits of taking breaks have been documented and evidenced time and again. The robust body of research doesn’t dictate what breaks should be taken, for how long or how often, but it all agrees that breaks should be taken regularly – and that they work. In fact, in Psychology Today’s guide to productivity they emphasise the importance of taking breaks regularly, and state that productive people ‘prioritize regular breaks and time off’.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HIGH-QUALITY BREAKS
A recent study found that the average worker is only productive for 2 hour and 53 minutes of the day. Although that number sounds shockingly low, for most of us, it’s probably scarily accurate.
So let me take a guess about the breaks you take during your work day: scrolling through your phone, eating lunch at your desk, accidentally working through your tea break entirely. Honestly, sometimes they’re necessary. Sometimes you do need to just mindlessly tap through puppy videos.
To really feel a difference, though, we need to be taking high-quality breaks. A high-quality break is an activity that takes the mind – and often the physical self – away from the task at hand to leave you rejuvenated when you return. Some examples are desk stretching, meditation, or even doodling. And a high-quality break needn’t eat into your calendar; you can feel the benefits in as little as five minutes.
No doubt you’ve heard it said that the best ideas come in the shower, or in the gym, or when you’re out for a walk. Often, letting our brains escape from the problems we’re trying to solve is exactly what propels us to our most exciting and innovative solutions.
CHANGE NEEDS TO COME FROM THE TOP
I doubt that anything I’m telling you is coming as a surprise. All of us know that taking a moment for ourselves makes us work better and feel better. And yet, we have a strangely anti-break work culture. People who take breaks are often seen as slackers, rather than people working smarter and frankly better; studies have shown that managers even value ostensibly ‘productive’ workers as being morally superior to less productive workers, even if the former are simply excellent at useless busywork. We are a nation that loves weekends and bank holidays, but shames work breaks – but imagine enjoying your time off, instead of using it for recovery.
Despite the rise in WFH, making breaks part of a healthy, productive work culture isn’t going to be an overnight success. The change needs to come from the top – studies such as Passey et al (2018) and others show this to be true. But which business doesn’t value productivity? And who among us doesn’t want to get every item on their list done well, feel great while doing it, and have more gas in the tank for the things we love? We – and our companies – need to do ourselves a collective favour, and take a damn break.