Paradox: How Idle Time at Work Can Improve Productivity
Professional sports require incredible stamina. If you’ve ever watched a tennis match, for example, you’ve seen how athletes stay in near-constant motion to maintain their energy and laser focus. Hockey players also go all-out during their brief, on-ice shifts before returning to the bench, panting from exertion.
Naturally, we focus on what happens during play, but some of the most critical moments happen off-camera, while the athletes are recovering. During the 90-second changeover break, tennis players often bury their heads under a towel to meditate, change rackets, or hydrate with water and energy drinks. Hockey players do diaphragmatic breathing to increase oxygen flow and mentally review their previous shifts.
Whatever technique they use, these pro athletes understand the importance of a break. A brief pause can provide a surge of energy and renewed motivation to keep them playing their best. While most of us aren’t panting from exhaustion, the workday can still be mentally and physically challenging, especially when you’re building a business.
In addition to finding your optimal work hours, taking multiple breaks can enhance your productivity all day long. Our workaholic society and the 24/7 startup culture tend to demonize “unproductive” downtime, like out-of-office lunches and web browsing, but research shows that breaks can enhance your performance on several different levels.
A 2011 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that brief diversions can dramatically improve both decision-making and creativity. On the flip side, prolonged attention to a single task can hinder performance. Working until dawn to prep for an investor meeting might seem like a good idea, but it could backfire, leaving you drained and less mentally nimble to field tough questions.
Scientists learned years ago that sleep helps to consolidate memories. Now, research shows that waking periods of mental rest can also boost memory formation. During breaks, your brain reviews and embeds what it learned before you hit pause. As Ferris Jabr writes in Scientific American: “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”
At my company, JotForm, I build intentional breaks into my work days -- and I encourage my teams to do the same. The magic lies in taking the right kind of breaks. Here are a few ways to take constructive breaks, even as you’re chasing big deadlines or extinguishing new fires.
Rest your prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is dedicated to logical thinking, executive functioning, and exercising willpower against impulses. A good break should give this hard-working part of the brain a little breather. Even letting your mind wander will switch brain activity to another area.
A study published in Science reported that daydreaming or zoning out can even have benefits similar to meditation. That’s an important finding, because meditation not only strengthens focus, but it gives your PFC a time-out.
Our health suffers when we sit for extended periods of time, so it’s important to keep moving throughout the day, but you don’t have to do a lunchtime CrossFit workout to reap the benefits of physical activity. Even a five-minute walk every hour can improve your mental and physical health. And while mental health is essential for everyone, the statistics are especially troubling for entrepreneurs.
According to a study by Dr. Michael Freeman, entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely to report having a mental health condition than non-entrepreneurs. I’m not, in any way, suggesting that walking or stretching breaks can treat serious mental health issues, but these activities can ease daily stress and improve your mood.
On a lighter note, many founders have discovered that walking can boost creativity. A Stanford University study revealed that when participants tackled tasks that required imagination and divergent thinking, walking led to more creative ideas than sitting. Steve Jobs famously preferred walking meetings, especially if he was meeting someone for the first time. Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Barack Obama are also reportedly fans of walking and talking.
I’m one of these workday walkers, too. Whenever possible, I walk to lunch and take long strolls with our new employees, so I can get to know them better. We often take scenic walks on the Embarcadero and enjoy the sweeping bay views. These walks not only generate new ideas, but they help to break down social barriers and make work more fun.
Chat with co-workers and colleagues.
If taking a break is good, then taking a break with your team or co-founders may be even better. Social breaks contribute to both personal and professional well-being. Grabbing a coffee or chatting about non-work topics can reinforce bonds, improve morale, and create opportunities for collaboration.
As Phyllis Korkki wrote in The New York Times, “technology companies have long embraced the concept of voluntary group breaks as a path to creativity and collaboration.” She cites Google’s pool tables, Ping-Pong tables, video games, and bowling alley as places where colleagues can vent about problems and connect on a human level.
Time management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, acknowledges that not every schedule allows for regular breaks. But we can all make the most of “found time,” she says, like spending the first 20 minutes of a flight to read a book and relax.
Get outside and bring the flora inside.
Taking breaks in a natural environment can improve your well-being, reduce stress, enhance innovative potential, and strengthen relationships. Spending time outside also boosts our ability to think broadly and make smart decisions. No wonder big tech companies have built offices that include plants, green spaces, and lots of natural light.
For example, Facebook’s new MK21 headquarters at Menlo Park features a 3.6-acre rooftop garden with over 200 trees and a half-mile pathway – perfect for all those walking meetings. The building also includes other plant-filled outdoor spaces, and a sheltered green space with 12-meter-high redwood trees.
We can’t all have Frank Gehry-designed offices or giant redwoods on-site, but we can add plants to our spaces. If you’re setting up a new office, it’s also worth prioritizing spaces that have nearby parks, green plazas, or natural views.
Fuel your body and brain.
Many of us have experienced those sneaky 3 pm cravings, when we suddenly want something salty, sweet, or crunchy. Raiding the vending machine isn’t necessarily healthy, but you might want to give in to your urge to snack.
University of Roehampton researcher Leigh Gibson says the brain works best with a consistent blood glucose level. A banana, protein bar, or some nut butter can help you stay fueled and productive.
Don’t check out completely.
Resting the prefrontal cortex is key, so almost any mental time-out is helpful. But some researchers recommend that workday breaks should still be work-related. During these “microbreaks,” you might want to learn something new, connect with others, or reflect on what’s ahead. These are the activities that Charlotte Fritz, a psychologist at Portland State University, says are positively correlated with feeling energized at work.
How to time your breaks.
In the rushing river of a busy workday, it can be challenging to take regular breaks. At JotForm, I try to pre-plan my day to include focused work periods and set break times. For example, MIT lecturer Bob Pozen says you should take a time-out every 75 to 90 minutes. He arrived at these numbers after studying the practice habits of professional musicians.
“Working for 75 to 90 minutes takes advantage of the brain’s two modes: learning or focusing and consolidation,” Pozen told the authors of an MIT blog post. “When people do a task and then take a break for 15 minutes, they help their brain consolidate information and retain it better.”
You can also try the popular Pomodoro technique, which recommends working for 25 minutes before taking a five-minute break. Just like a hockey player’s short, high-energy shifts, this approach works well for focused sprints that require serious concentration.
However (and whenever) you choose to take breaks, it’s important to do what works best for you. Use trial and error to find the right approach; one that leaves you feeling refreshed, energized, and ready to navigate each new challenge.