Why Breaks Are Just As Important As Work

Last semester I learned a great lesson in managing my own work. I took a good amount of class credits, the supposed “maximum number” you could sign up for at this particular university (although I’m sure you could always negotiate more). They weren’t exactly easy classes either, but I ended with my best GPA yet. It was my senior year, and all of the courses were considered “higher-level” (300-500 level courses), including my position as a research assistant at a cognitive science laboratory. Every week was chock-full with reading and homework assignments, papers, presentations, studying for exams, and various other odds and ends. My head was spinning. I barely completed my first month before thinking, “There is no way I am going to be able to do this.” But I recognized that there was nothing to get too stressed about, and “de-stressing” would have to become an equally important part of my day.

The first thing I noticed before I knew I had to make a change was my mood, or my “long-term” mental state throughout the day. I felt as though my life revolved around the work I did. Work was the center of my day, the center of my being, the cause of all my stress. It was becoming too much a part of my identity, I was swept up in the wonderful world of deadline-making. Yippee! Not. And when you begin to lose yourself in your work in a negative way, then it is time to take a step back.

Whenever I used to get frustrated or angered as a kid my parents would always tell me to take a deep breathe and count to ten. I always hated hearing the advice – it only made me that much closer to punching the nearest wall. But throughout my years I have found out it was not bad advice at all, they were just giving it to me at the worst possible time (the times where you are so upset and outraged that you won’t listen to anybody). So I’m here to tell you now: the next time you are so overworked and frustrated, take a step back, a deep breathe, and count to ten. Do it – not because people tell you to do it – but as an experiment. Just stop. Say, “I’m going to take a deep breathe and count to ten,” and then do it. Simple. Done. A ten second break is still a break, and it can actually seem like a long time when you count it out.

Breaks in general are important. They signify how we chunk up our day. What do you prefer:

  • Longer breaks but fewer
  • Shorter breaks but more.

If you want to really become an excellent worker, you need to be as equally excellent at taking breaks.
Think of the guys at Google, one of the biggest and fastest growing companies of our generation. Their work offices have all sorts of fun trinkets and games: there are slides you can use to get down a floor, game rooms with pool tables, Foosball, arcade machines, professional massages, and even a room where you can just sit down, relax, and gaze at pretty fish. The Google people sure know how to take a break – and for good reason!

Any kind of break is a good break. It freshens the mind, gives it time to mold over ideas, and strengthen neural connections in the brain. Taking breaks can facilitate learning, become a creativity enhancer, and energize you before you need to get back on your grind.

Even so, some breaks are better than others, and choosing the right kind of break depends heavily on the kind of work you are absorbed in. If your work is very mentally-intensive, maybe it is a lot of number crunching, problem-solving, or you get paid for your creative output, than it is a good idea to do something physical on your break. It doesn’t have to be as intense as going to the gym or playing football. Just a light jog or walk outside is usually perfect. It gets your face away from staring at papers or computer screens and gives you time to spend outside and with nature (which psychologists recommend). If your work is some kind of physical labor, then you may want to do something more restful like read a book, listen to music, or even take a short nap.
Naps are some of the best breaks you can take whether for physical work or mental work.
I have seen a numerous reports lately showing how naps improve worker efficiency (Here is the most recent one I could find, published in Harvard Business Review, “Why Companies Should Insist That Employees Take Naps“). A healthy nap can range anywhere from 20-90 minutes long.

Whether you spend that time jogging or sleeping or whatever, remember that the important part is that you are taking a break. Make breaks a part of your routine if they aren’t already. And if you still find yourself getting tired or stressed, find more ways to take breaks. There is nothing worse than to waste our human potential by putting ourselves into work overload and burning out. Take the time to recharge yourself, and experience the benefits of downtime.



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