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Rest is important for productivity. Trying to work straight without recovering your energies leads to a wandering attention, procrastination and, in extreme cases, death. But when does “recovering your energies” just become an excuse to waste time? How do you draw the line between constructive rest and laziness?

I don’t believe this question has an easy answer. The most productive people I know have a high quitting point. They can put in extra energy to get big projects complete when most people would give up. At the same time, trying to work non-stop can defeat itself if you need an injection of caffeine just to keep your eyes open.

Signs You Should Be Taking a Break

Instead of a strict rule to define what are useful breaks and what are just excuses to procrastinate, I prefer a few guidelines. These can’t be perfect all the time, but by using them as a mental checklist you can ask yourself whether you are best off continuing work or taking a breather.

Here are some signs you should take a break and recover your energies:

  1. You’ve just finished a major task. I’m against breaking in-between work. That breaks the flow of concentration that would otherwise be helpful in completing a task. Once you’ve completed a big task (writing an essay, emptying your inbox, etc.) giving yourself a few minutes to rest can be useful.
  2. You’ve been working hard. Look back at the last few days. Ask yourself whether you have been more or less productive than your average. Taking a day off after several highly productive days can be useful. But resting after three days of accomplishing nothing will probably only make your procrastination worse.
  3. You need to switch gears. I often write several articles at once, but I usually take a small break in-between. Taking a break during a task is wasteful because you interrupt the natural thinking flow of work. But if you need to start a new task, you may have to interrupt that flow anyways. Look for logical breaks in your work to plan out rest times.

Tips for Productive Rest

The more habitual you can make your resting strategy, the less you need to rely on willpower to keep working. It will be an automatic strategy to stay focused. Here are a few more guidelines you can use when trying to decide whether you need a break:

  1. Plan Daily and Weekly Goals. The best method to avoid burnout and laziness is by using a quota. Simply set for yourself all the tasks you want to accomplish in the week and day. When these tasks are done, you can use any time left over to rest.
  2. Keep Work and Play Separate. Although I’m not perfect in application, I strive to follow the “work hard, play hard” mantra. This means that when you allocate time for working on big projects, you focus entirely on that for a set period of time. The time you have remaining is yours to use however you like. This removes the guilt during rest periods and urge to procrastinate during work periods.
  3. Keep a Varied Lifestyle. Focusing all of your energies onto just one task can be useful, for a short time. But having diversified interests can keep you emotionally balanced and your energies high. If work is your only pursuit, it can be easy to burnout. Having other hobbies, social activities and interests to occupy your time can be helpful in staying productive while resting.
  4. Have “Lazy” Days. I put “lazy” in quotations because the end result is often the opposite. Having days where you try to do things as slowly as possible can keep you focused on the days when tasks threaten to overwhelm you.
  5. The 20% Rule. Not to be confused with the 80/20 Rule, this is a rule that is useful for building self-discipline or overcoming your fears. Put simply, the 20% rule states that you notice when you first feel a strong urge to give up. You then commit to go 20% further before taking a long break. This helps smooth over temporary feelings of laziness and builds your internal discipline.
  6. Have a Motivation Refuel. Physical fatigue isn’t the only threat to your energy. Emotional fatigue in the form of rejections, disappointments or making mistakes can all dampen your motivation. Having a motivation refuel means having a day, hour or even a few minutes where you go over your goals, listen to motivational tapes, meditate or do whatever will recharge your drive.
  7. Don’t Rely on Substances. I don’t drink coffee. Occasionally I’ll drink caffeinated tea, but never as a performance drug. Yet, I see many people who rely on their triple-espresso as a crutch to just get through the day. This isn’t a lecture about heath consequences, but about productivity. Your body can’t maintain an artificial source of energy, so if you constantly use stimulants to keep yourself going, you’ll lose the natural ability to tell what your energy levels are. Try going without caffeine for a month (or cut back your usage or switch to teas) and see what effect it has.
  8. Productive Benchmarks. Monitor how much work you can do over an average day, week or month. This can set a productive benchmark that can allow you to decide where to set hourly, daily and weekly goals. By lining up your quotas with a productive benchmark, you can avoid feeling guilty about taking a rest when you truly need one.

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