Taking a Break Can Actually Improve Your Work
I have fond memories of a project for which the unmovable deadline was just a couple of weeks away and we still faced numerous problems. We spent those weeks working nonstop from early morning until midnight and beyond. From time to time, food appeared, much of it looking strikingly like pizza. We worked while we ate and ate while we worked.
If anyone back then had told us we’d be more efficient if we took periodic breaks, we would have said, “Nothing doing!” How could we spare a single moment with the deadline hanging over us? But back then, the notion of taking a break was not yet in vogue. Our firm belief was that the longer we worked, the more we’d get done.
These days, we know that this relentless go-go-go approach doesn’t increase productivity—in fact, it diminishes it. This is true whether the long workdays are occasional or, as in many Silicon Valley companies, routine. There’s simply a limit to how many hours anyone can put in without losing concentration, sacrificing efficiency, and making errors that require rework—or aren’t uncovered until it’s too late.
But it’s not just the job that suffers. So does the person who’s doing the job. Working nonstop raises the risk of physical problems such as heart disease and diabetes and mental health problems such as depression and exhaustion. And cognitive declines are inevitable. No one can work endlessly without losing focus.
Taking short, frequent breaks throughout the workday results in more stamina, fewer aches and pains, and greater energy. It makes sense: The human brain isn’t designed for the kinds of extended focus that uninterrupted work demands. But a brief break—a simple interruption in the workflow—can refocus one’s energy. Just as muscles become fatigued from overuse, so does mental concentration. Taking a time-out helps both to recover.
If you feel guilty about taking a break, don’t. Yes, it’s time away from the job. But that brief period—even just five to ten minutes a few times a day—can boost your productivity out of proportion to the time away. It’s those who insist on working beyond the point of exhaustion who should feel guilty. They think they’re being productive when they’re not, while you, having taken a well-timed break, can then continue chugging along at full speed.
Taking a break seems especially worth doing when the pressure is on, as was the case with the project I was on. In fact, it’s when the pressure is greatest that taking a break can have the biggest benefit.