Take the break and drop the guilt
Last week, I took a lunch break. I hopped on my bike, rode to the lake, swam 2km, then biked home. I was away from my computer for 57 minutes. 57 glorious active minutes in the sun.
I felt energized, reflective, and then... guilty.
It’s not that anyone I work with would criticize the time away. But as a Canadian living and working in Europe, it’s a hard mindset to break.
I’m a product of the sad-desk-lunch culture. The very notion of taking an hour off during the day has always felt a bit (ok, maybe a lot) like shirking. Somewhere along the way, I conflated effectiveness with time spent working. Truthfully, I assumed time away from my computer would be noticed and judged (and perhaps I too was guilty of judging others for doing the same).
At no point in my career did anyone ever tell me to skip the lunch break. Nor was I warned against taking breaks of any kind during working hours. But I noticed that the people who pushed through the day without stopping tended to be the ones recognized for their hard work.
But here’s the thing: No one noticed I was offline, or if they did, they certainly didn’t care.
I came back refreshed, feeling ready to work, and had an effective afternoon. I can confidently say I was better off for it, despite having goggle lines and wet hair during my afternoon calls.
The science behind scheduling breaks
This is far from revolutionary, I know. Study after study tells us that breaks throughout the day enhance productivity. Yet how many of us elevate the importance of breaks and actually schedule them in our calendars, just like we would schedule a meeting or an important task? So many of us only take breaks if it feels like a quiet day with a bit of extra time.
After watching a video by Danny Hatcher who talked about building rest and recovery into his day, I reconsidered my view on breaks. As a runner, I respect the need for recovery after a hard session. The times I’ve ignored my body’s cries for rest have always resulted in my slowest races or injuries.
Danny applies the same principles to our cognitive energy. Like a hard session at the gym, a hard cognitive work session depletes our energy stores. If we don’t take a break to recover from that session, performance declines.
He applies these principles when he plans his time. Danny’s calendar is a thing of beauty. He schedules work sessions, usually capping them at a maximum of two hours, then builds in rest breaks. Sometimes these are for meals, other times watching TV, but whatever it is, he steps away from work.
Despite what looks like a dense and rigid schedule, Danny remains flexible, based on his energy levels. If he finds his energy is low, he doesn’t hesitate to alter a session, either shortening it to build in more recovery or using the time to tackle a less demanding task than planned. Similarly, if his energy levels are high, he will extend a session, though he’s careful not to just work through breaks altogether, knowing the consequences he’ll feel later.
The art of taking breaks
His explanation helped me reconsider how I use my calendar. Rather than packing it with meetings and tasks, I’m starting to schedule time for breaks and adding in buffer time to ease context switching.
After only a few weeks of being more disciplined about breaks, I’m seeing the benefits. When I pair breaks with time blocking for focused projects, I find my ability to focus for 90 minutes to two hours is far greater, I get a lot done, and time flies.
It’s not always perfect. Sometimes I work through a planned break if I’m feeling effective and don’t want to interrupt my flow. Other times my lunch break is a ten-minute walk outside. But other days, I take time to properly step away from my laptop. Yesterday I went for a run in the middle of the day. And though I came back sweaty, I felt ready to launch back into work.
Not everyone has the privilege to work somewhere that recognizes that breaks in the day will enhance productivity. Having worked big corporate in North America, I know how much hard (meaning long) work is worshipped. But if you have the chance, to block recovery time in your calendar, do it. It’s amazing what stepping away from the laptop and the sad-desk-lunches can do.