When a deadline is looming, you do whatever’s needed to get the job done. Often that entails working from one end of the day to the other in hopes that the longer you work, the more you’ll get done. It may be, though, that the nonstop approach is not the best route to productivity.
According to a New York Times article, there’s a growing body of evidence that skipping breaks leads to exhaustion. That, by itself, is hardly an earthshattering finding. But counterintuitive though it may seem, the evidence suggests that when you take regular breaks from mental tasks, productivity actually improves. The article quotes a professor who draws a parallel between mental concentration and muscles. Both become fatigued from sustained use and both need rest periods in order to recover.
Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that long periods of inactivity can damage health—and that’s the case even if you exercise regularly. Despite the benefits of exercise, it’s the periods of inactivity—such as sitting at your terminal for hours on end—that cause the damage. According to one study, on average, people who sit too much at a stretch shave a few years off of their lives. Scary stuff, indeed, but it’s also a matter that’s easy to deal with simply by getting up periodically and moving around.
Taking a brief walk may address both taking a mental break and getting out of the seated position. Chip Camden, writing in TechRepublic, has found taking a walk to be an ideal break, especially when he aims to focus on what he sees en route rather than pondering the project he’s working on.
The burst of energy that often occurs after taking a break makes a compelling benefit. As noted in one of the many websites that address productivity:
Much of knowledge workers' productivity is more related to quality than to quantity. Five minutes of highly focused and motivated work can produce more than half an hour of sitting in the chair forcing yourself into a task. Breaks allow you to refresh and come back for a full burst of energy.
Of course, as with most things, taking a break is not without its pitfalls. One such is the temptation to procrastinate when you’re back at work, though a pressing deadline and teammates who won’t let you stall for long may address that issue. Another potential pitfall, as cited in the above posts, is the guilt factor: How can I give myself this downtime when there’s a deadline to meet?
It seems like taking a break is worth trying when the pressure is on—and even when it isn’t. If your productivity increases as a result, you benefit—and so do your team, your project, and your customers.
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.