Why Entrepreneurs Need More 'Me' Time

A new study suggests it is better to step away from a problem, focus on something unrelated and personal, and then return to the task at hand.

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By Lisa Evans

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Does this situation sound familiar? You've been working non-stop on a problem, logging in 60-hour workweeks and gluing yourself to the desk during the weekends. Even when you take a break, to have coffee with a friend or attend your daughter's ballet recital, your mind gravitates to work. While slogging it out may be considered a normal practice of entrepreneurs, new research shows taking a break is actually better for business.

"As a society, we don't like to take 'breaks' maybe because of the perception of being lazy," says University of Toronto Rotman School of Business Ph.D candidate Bonnie Hayden Cheng. She, along with Associate Professor Julie McCarthy, recently published a study examining a group of university students juggling work, family and academic responsibilities. Participants who practiced cognitive disengagement by actively taking their minds off their troubles and onto something completely unrelated were better able to manage the tasks at hand than those who tried to push through without breaking.

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Cognitive disengagement may sound counterproductive when you're trying to build a business, but Cheng and McCarthy's study proves it may be the smartest way to work. "Actively taking your mind off the problems at hand actually helps manage multiple role responsibilities and leads to increased levels of [work] satisfaction," says Cheng.

If "me time" sounds like a luxury or as something that takes time away from the business, consider this: "Your subconscious is 800 times more powerful than your conscious mind," says business-execution coach Jonathan Smith. The conscious brain's limited problem-solving capabilities means mental disengagement may be just as important to your business' success as a sales meeting.

Smith refers to the process of mental disengagement as a "clarity break" and credits these breaks for the success of great leaders, arguing they allow space to envision the future and bring long-term goals into perspective. "Leaders who don't take the time to think about the business outside of busy work and meetings have a difficult time solving problems and aren't able to lead as well as others who take a time out on a regular basis," says Smith.

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Stepping away gives your brain the opportunity to have a breakthrough moment as the subconscious is allowed to work through the problems you've been slogging through all day. Cognitive disengagement allows the brain to recharge its batteries, so to speak, allowing us to return to the problem with a fresh perspective and renewed energy. Smith says he often finds clarity after participating in a yoga class. "Focusing on breathing and setting an intention often delivers an answer," he says.

While for some, mental disengagement may mean taking up a hobby such as scuba diving or cross stitching, for others it can be as easy as listening to music or even taking a nap. Traditional methods of blowing off steam, such as exercise, may also be effective, but not if your thoughts continue to drift towards work.

While Smith says he takes a clarity break daily, usually while walking his dog, others may find they only need "me time" on a weekly bi-weekly basis. Whatever you do, don't use your break to catch up on "busy work" and turn your cell phone off. Cheng stresses the quality of the break is more important than the quantity.

Related: What a Hot Dog Eating Contest Can Teach You About Problem Solving

Lisa Evans

Lisa Evans is a health and lifestyle freelance journalist from Toronto.

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