The Importance of Taking a Break
by Matt, on 4 Aug 2020
I’ve just returned to work after a five-day mini vacation – actually, a staycation – and it got me thinking about the importance of taking breaks. Not just the multi-day vacation sort but breaks of all lengths and frequencies.
Our home and work commitments – and, these days, the two superimposed on each other – often make it hard to take breaks when we should. Sometimes, though, we need a gentle reminder that it’s okay – in fact, it’s necessary – to make them happen if we can.
In this edition of SPT, I’m going to share my observations and some interesting factoids that I discovered about how and why it’s important to plan and take breaks at every time scale – from multiple times each day to longer breaks every few weeks.
THE 45-MINUTE RULE
On an ideal morning, I wake up full of energy, bounce out of bed and head downstairs to eat breakfast, annoying pretty much everyone around me with my enthusiasm. My brain spins-up as I fix my oatmeal, already chomping at the cerebral bit to get stuck into the work tasks that lie in store.
Thirty minutes later, after I’ve brushed my teeth and brewed my first espresso lungo of the morning, I’m at my computer, clearing my inbox (yes, I’m one of those weirdos), and getting ready to dive into something that will keep me busy for a couple of hours.
Sometimes, I remember to take a break – by which I mean more than just getting up to use the bathroom and then sitting straight back down to work. Frequently, though, I find myself two hours deep into the morning, wondering why my coffee has gone cold and my eyes are already growing tired of the constant focal length.
This, I know, is a very bad habit.
Research dating back as far as a 1967 study on sonar operators’ ability to detect targets has shown that our brain can only maintain true focus for about 30-45 minutes. Since then, other studies have validated the concept of regularly shifting your attention and giving your brain a rest.
The giving it a rest part is worth emphasizing. Switching from Excel to LinkedIn or Facebook doesn’t qualify. Your brain needs to switch into a different mode to recharge.
This can be as simple as taking a walk to the break room and engaging in some idle chatter with colleagues – with the added bonus that such chatter might result in greater collaboration or spawn a novel idea worth pursuing.
Other people prefer going for a walk, meditation, visualization and breathing exercises, listening to some music or therapeutic sounds, or playing a game of ping pong.
In my case, it means getting away from my desk – whether it’s in sitting or standing mode – for about 10 minutes, changing my focal length, moving to a different room, and directing my attention to the outside world – even if that just means watching the trees outside my window.
The most famous approach to making this happen is the Pomodoro Technique, popularized by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s and named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that he used as a university student. These days, there are hundreds of apps to help you set and plan breaks.
TO LUNCH OR NOT TO LUNCH
I’m a snacker. I eat about every 2-2½ hours between breakfast and dinner, which is a larger meal around 7pm and the last thing I eat for the day (except perhaps a square of chocolate to reward myself for a day well lived 😊).
Lunch, therefore, isn’t a big deal. It usually involves a couple of pieces of fruit that I could easily consume at my desk and keep going.
The good news is that my wife prefers fewer snacks and a somewhat more substantial lunch and, since we work together, I frequently accompany her while she eats. This gives me a longer break and a meaningful diversion from work.
That’s not to say that we don’t talk work over lunch; if we’ve been beavering away on separate tasks it’s a convenient time to catch up and compare notes. But we more often chat about things other than work, shifting mental gears and clearing our heads.
The moral here is that a lunch break doesn’t have to revolve around eating.
The word ‘lunch’ traces its roots back to 16th century English for a thick piece of meat, and before that to the Spanish word lonja, meaning ‘a slice’. Perhaps we can think of lunch in a different sense, inserting a slice of recharging and reconnecting time in between two hunks of concentrated work?
MARKING THE END OF THE WORKDAY
Even before COVID and the whole WFH situation, I knew many people who barely discriminated between work hours and the rest of their day. They are always on.
Those with kids might break away at the predetermined hour to feed them dinner, help with homework, and put them to bed, but they dive back into work afterwards and continue until all hours of the night.
My issue with this approach is not that we should all adopt an idealized 9-5 schedule. Far from it – when there’s work to be finished, the time of day is almost immaterial. Rather, it’s the apparent misconception that working longer hours necessarily equates to greater productivity.
I’m tired of seeing entrepreneurs applauded for working “17-hour days, 7 days per week, for 12 months straight” or some variation along those lines. Cranking out long hours when there’s a deadline to be met is fine. Turning it into a lifestyle is not.
The 8-hour workday originated in the 18th century as the Industrial Revolution unfolded and factory owners realized that longer shifts were unsustainable, even inhumane. In 1914, the Ford Motor Company famously reduced workers’ daily hours to eight while increasing wages to compensate and saw a dramatic improvement in overall productivity.
This has nothing to do with the number of hours a human can actually perform at a high level, however. Contemporary research finds that office workers are typically only productive for about 3 hours during each 8-hour day.
Extending your working hours has a diminishing effect on total productivity. In other words, it allows the same amount of work to drag on longer and be produced at overall lower efficiency and quality. There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that tired, overworked people make more mistakes and suffer more accidents.
People who work fewer, more structured hours are better rested, more focused, and more productive.
My conclusion is that even those of us who work for ourselves and work from home (even when not asked to do so in support of virus mitigation efforts) would do well to clearly demarcate the beginning and end of our work hours to optimize our productivity.
SWITCHING OFF AND SLEEPING
As a parent to two teenagers, I can really own this one. Truth be told, though, it’s just as applicable to the adults in the house. Unless we switch off our electronics at least 30-60 minutes before bedtime, we have a hard time falling asleep and we don’t sleep as soundly.
The Sleep Foundation reports that studies have shown even small electronic devices emit enough light to miscue our brain and promote extended wakefulness. Children are particularly susceptible (meanwhile, back on my soapbox…) but as adults we are subject to the same effects.
Living in an always-on society where artificial lights and 24x7 entertainment options pervade our environment, we’ve lost the traditional evening reduction in light that signaled our brains to wind down for sleep.
The solution is to recreate that effect for ourselves.
My phone goes into DND mode and onto the charger at least half an hour before I plan to fall asleep (although I frequently stop using it even earlier than that).
These days, I find I can get by on 7 hours of sleep, although an extra hour definitely leaves me feeling properly rested. Any time I get 5 hours or less, especially if it’s disturbed sleep because of illness or some external interruption, I can feel the performance impact next day.
Importantly, a lack of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – the phase when dreams are made, which occurs about every 90-minutes during normal sleep patterns – has been shown to undermine our ability to overcome emotional distress and anxiety.
Sleep and cognition studies show that it is during good REM sleep that the emotional impact of memories is properly processed and resolved. When REM sleep is disturbed or limited, emotions may accumulate – sometimes leading to a reinforcing cycle of disturbed sleep and further increasing anxiety.
Given the exceptional number and severity of stressors that we all seem to be facing these days, getting a good night’s sleep has seldom seemed more important – and a great place to start is by switching off our devices to have a shot at getting one.
WHAT'S IN A WEEKEND
Moving up the time scale a notch we arrive at Le Weekend.
This, too, is a relatively recent construct. Even though followers of most religions have long observed some form of communal rest and worship on a weekly basis (Sabbath, Shabbat, Jumu’ah, etc.), the concept of a work week and a “weekend” only arose in the industrialized north of Britain in the early 19th century.
It was originally a voluntary arrangement between factory owners and workers, allowing the latter to leave work at 2pm on Saturdays on the understanding that they would return “sober and refreshed” on a Monday morning.
The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America Union was the first to demand and secure a five-day workweek, in 1929. It took until the early 2000s for some countries to adopt a harmonized workweek and weekend, motivated by international markets.
But, what does it mean when you’re an entrepreneur or on the leadership team of an early-stage company?
There are always 101 things that need doing, and only a few pairs of hands to get them done. Limiting oneself to a 5-day by 8-hour workweek sounds inadequate for the problem at hand.
Without question, there are times when it makes sense to ignore clock and calendar and focus relentlessly on the goal. But, I’d argue, there’s little evidence that doing so for prolonged periods of time gets you there faster than someone who recognizes the benefits of regular rest and recovery.
Why do coaches call timeout? Why are sports matches broken into halves or quarters? Why do race cars lose track position to make a pit stop? Why should life be broken into seven-day weeks of which two are considered work-optional, if not work-free?
To pause for breath. To stop and think. To take on fuel and make running repairs. To have a chat and make tactical adjustments. To fix something that’s not quite working but can’t be adjusted ‘on the fly’.
In most cases, to take advantage of outside assistance that isn’t available or accessible when you’re in the middle of the game/match/race/workday/meeting/sprint/project.
Stopping to reflect, rest, recharge, refuel, and reconnoiter every few days is a critical success factor for most people and businesses.
Plowing ahead unchecked for days and days is a recipe for getting lost, running out of food, or worse – getting eaten by the lions (a.k.a. your competition).
Bringing us back from the philosophical depths: taking a break at the weekend is a next-order level of rest that our bodies and minds need to sustain peak performance.
It doesn’t have to be a full 48-hours away from work. Many of us choose to knock out a few work tasks over the weekend because it means we can hit the ground running on Monday morning with fewer things carried over from the previous week.
But, we do so by choice, and we do so in conjunction with rest, self-care, relaxation, socialization, and distractions from whatever it is we do the rest of the week.
TIME FOR SELF
I want to pause briefly at this point on the macro time scale to think about a different axis: the spectrum between spending time entirely focused on others and spending time focused entirely on ourselves.
We are raised to value, commend, and reward time spent doing things for others. Whether voluntary or paid, our activities for the good of others are frequently the thing by which our standing in life is evaluated. Time spent on ourselves is seen as, well, selfish.
From a physiological and psychological perspective, however, that time spent focusing on ourselves is essential.
We need to look after ourselves. We need to become sufficiently self-aware that we can spot when our performance is dropping, our energy levels becoming low, our health in jeopardy, and our ability to serve others compromised.
When I mentioned choosing to spend part of our weekend time on self-care, I didn’t necessarily mean anything truly therapeutic. It could be as simple as granting oneself permission to indulge in a decadent food, watch some mindless TV, or do nothing while wrapped in a shawl on the porch swing watching the clouds blow by.
Make time for yourself, even when all around you are choosing not to do so.
THE LONG WEEKEND
One extra day makes such a difference. 72 hours instead of 48. Fifty percent more time away from the desk and computer.
Why are long weekends so special?
I think, in part at least, it’s because our regular weekends are pre-planned. We develop a routine for them just as we do for our workdays. We schedule grocery runs, sports activities, picking up the dry cleaning, speaking to relatives, and a hundred other things into those precious once-a-week breaks.
The net result is that we go back to work on Monday morning dissatisfied and only half-rested. We have barely completed the essentials on our every-growing domestic to-do list before it’s time to switch back into work mode.
Taking a long weekend – whether by virtue of a public holiday or because we tacked on a personal day or a vacation – changes the game.
For whatever reason, we don’t seem to extend the same maniacal planning to the extra day. It preserves its status as a holiday much more hardily than a regular Saturday or Sunday. Consequently, we spend more of it relaxing and we enjoy it immensely.
When we return to work on Monday morning after a long weekend, we feel more satisfied and more restless. We also lament the infrequency of long weekends!
My belief is that long weekends are hugely beneficial to my wellbeing and my state of mind.
My choice is to make them happen more often, even if that means using up some of my paid time off and having less of it left over for extended vacations (about which, more in a moment).
When was the last time you planned a long weekend that wasn’t tied to a public holiday?
There’s something particularly pleasing about being away from work on Monday when most other people are at their desks – the big difference between randomly planning your own long weekend and the public holiday version.
I’ve found that taking just one long weekend every eight weeks changes my frame of mind. I’ll come back to that idea at the end.
THE LONG VACATION
As we near the end of our take-a-break time scale, we reach the long vacation.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the word vacation meant the time when teachers and students vacate school premises and go off on their own. In those days, a vacation was a mark of privilege.
Over time, taking a vacation evolved into a middle-class institution and became a time primarily for entertainment, as well as physical and mental recuperation.
In America, there’s a love-hate relationship with vacation – something you don’t see as much in the Europe or the UK (where I’m originally from). There’s a saying in Europe that we work to go on vacation whereas Americans go on vacation so they can go back to work. I think it’s a bit overblown, but there’s definitely more of a workaholic culture in USA and something of a stigma associated with ‘excessive’ time off.
The advent of affordable long-haul travel has also left its mark on the annual vacation.
When asked where you went on vacation, do you feel you’re being judged? There’s a game of one-upmanship afoot, bragging about the latest, greatest place that you visited and the multitude of ‘unique’ experiences that you crammed into a week supposedly spent at leisure.
Taking inspiration from a recent social post by Abby Wambach and Glennon Doyle, we should distinguish between a trip and a vacation. Sharing a photo of herself in zipline harness and helmet, Glennon writes: “For example, if one finds oneself in a forest in an outfit such as this, one can be sure one is on a TRIP, NOT A VACATION” (emphasis hers).
In general, long vacations can be hard work – especially with kids in tow. Between all the planning, coordinating, booking, and executing, they can hardly be described as a relaxing break from the rigors of work. Hopefully the associated experience(s) are indeed unique, bonding, and memorable. That’s important, too.
Here I return to my choice to use some paid time off for extended weekends at the expense of having more days left for long vacations.
Unless you’re traveling umpteen time zones around the world, when staying at the other end for at least 10-14 days is a requirement if you’re going to enjoy anything without jetlag, I think long vacations are overrated.
Split up your time. Subdivide those precious days between more frequent long weekends and somewhat shorter vacations. You’ll find yourself maintaining a higher level of energy, enthusiasm, and performance throughout the year and you’ll get just as much pleasure out of the slightly shorter vacation because it won’t demand as much to plan and execute.
You’ll also benefit from what I call the radar screen effect.
THE RADAR SCREEN EFFECT
Knowing that a break is coming up helps to focus the mind.
This is true at every stop along the take-a-break timeline. Just a few more sentences and it’ll be time for coffee. One more hour and I’ll take a break for a snack. Two more days until the weekend. Three more weeks until that long weekend break at the lake house. Six more weeks until that trip to the mountains we’ve been planning.
No matter what time horizon you choose, having a rest point in sight makes it easier to push through. It makes it easier to focus and perform.
One of the worst side-effects of COVID-19 for my wife and me has been the lack of travel on our radar screen. We had a few trips planned for 2020 but, one by one, they’ve all been cancelled or postponed. It’s the first time since we met that there isn’t at least one – and frequently three or four – trips in the works.
Not only is this a bummer from the point of view of seeing new places, visiting family, and escaping the relentless Houston summer, it’s psychologically toxic.
We look forward to our trips, long and short. We enjoy the research, the planning, the booking, and the doing. We run our business in the knowledge that it’s affording us the opportunity to switch off, decompress, rest, and renew when it’s trip time.
Hopefully this is a relatively short-lived hiatus.
By trial and error, I’ve discovered that making a trip every eight weeks or so – even if it’s a weekend break to somewhere relatively close by – keeps me on an even keel. Every six months I need to escape for longer. Going a whole year without any meaningful travel is unprecedented and I can feel it taking its toll.
THE NEW REALITY
It remains to be seen how things will stabilize post-COVID.
Very likely, many of us will be working from home who would previously have worked in an office. We will need to pay attention to taking regular breaks during our workday because we won’t have an established office cadence to give us the cues.
It’s possible that our lives will remain more stressful and more complicated, at least until larger-scale systems like schools and offices adapt to our new circumstances. It will be our responsibility and choice to get good sleep, make time on our weekends for self-care, and to take long weekend breaks throughout the year.
And, I’m hopeful that travel will become safe again, even if a little more involved. We will be able to choose once more between taking most of our paid time off in one big vacation or redistributing it between a few long weekends and a shorter annual escapade.
Whatever choices you make, be intentional about taking a break. You’ll perform better and thank yourself for it afterwards.
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