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Published on March 12, 2021

Why You Need To Take A Break From Work For Good Productivity

Why You Need To Take A Break From Work For Good Productivity
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Yesterday was one of those days. I sat at my laptop screen with a to-do list the size of a small country and I just typed. I typed for two or three hours and by the time I was done with all the typing, I had made literally no progress.

Between second-guessing myself, deciding I didn’t like what I’d done, changing my mind, and just losing focus, I essentially wasted a good couple of hours sitting at a computer and “working” but actually getting no work done.

I got up, turned the computer off, and went for a walk. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Walking away when you’ve got a long list of deadlines and time won’t do you the courtesy of just slowing down while you get back in the game. But I needed it. Then I came back to my computer a couple of hours later and ticked the two highest priority items off that list in less time than I’d spent to achieve nothing earlier on in the day.

Taking a break is about so much more than a coffee and a chat. It’s not a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity! So, let’s ditch the guilty feelings of taking a break from work, and let’s stop snacking at our desks for 5 minutes instead of actually taking lunch. It will help us work better, be better employees or entrepreneurs, and possibly even live longer.

Here’s why you need to take a break from work for good productivity.

1. Humans Cannot Function Productively for Hours on End

Humans can’t function productively for hours on end, despite what your employment contract says.

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Do you care to guess how many hours a day you’re productive for? Is it 6? 7? All 8 of the main working day hours? Probably not. Studies suggest you’re productive for 2 or 3 hours at best.[1]

So, what are you doing for the rest of the time you’re sitting at your screen? You’re working significantly less productively, which is no better for you than it is for your boss.

I’m not saying we all need to move to a 3-hour working day with immediate effect. Let’s be practical about it. But accepting that after a couple of very productive hours, you need a break before you can come back and do that again is a good start.

2. Regular Breaks Are Good for Your Memory

Scientific research points to the fact that regular short breaks can improve your memory.[2] Better memory means you can whizz through tasks faster and more effectively. But a break, the study found, also helps you to retain recently acquired information.

So, if you’re doing the research for a report or you’re in a meeting for a couple of hours, actually walking away afterward and taking that coffee break can help you better retain the facts, figures, or information you just got.

Could this be one of the reasons why the Pomodoro Technique can be so effective for so many? Regular breaks in that technique could mean you’re actually processing all the information you’re getting from your work properly and taking that forward into the next task.

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3. A Break Enhances Your Energy Levels

Research in 2016 confirmed what I imagine many of us suspected. If you take a break, your energy levels will improve.[3]

There’s no productivity killer quite as lethal as lethargy. And I personally suffer from the dreaded “afternoon slump” a lot. If you’re tired, you won’t concentrate as well and you will not get as much done. It’s that simple. The research suggests that taking a break at lunchtime (an actual break, not 5 minutes browsing Facebook at your desk with a sandwich) boosts energy levels, thus improving your focus into the afternoon.

I know there are workplaces where the culture is very much lunch-at-desks. But if you feel the need to justify taking your full lunch break, then consider this it. Science says you’ll get more done in the afternoon.

4. You’ll Make Better Decisions After a Break

Decision-making—whether these decisions seem like minor or major ones—is an important part of our daily work. A group of researchers found that failing to take breaks leads to decision fatigue.[4]

Now, the decisions being made by the subjects of their study really were life-altering too. The study followed a group of judges who were ruling on whether to grant people parole. The study found they were much likelier not to grant parole to someone had they not had breaks. The scientists put this down to the judges (consciously or otherwise) making the easier decision on occasions where they hadn’t taken breaks and were therefore not rested.

I personally don’t have to make decisions that affect people’s lives like that (thankfully). But I’ve definitely experienced myself that when I’m feeling like I’m overdue a break, I am likelier to take the easy road even if it’s not the best one. So, switch the screen off, get away from your desk, grab a bite, and get some fresh air. Your decision-making will thank you for it.

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5. Breaks Improve Your Creativity

Whether you’re a writer, a lawyer, a marketer, or something else entirely, some degree of creativity is probably a requirement in your role. From creative problem solving to slogan writing, your imagination and creativity can play a huge role in the quality of your work.

I’ve often found my creative breakthroughs coming at the least convenient times (maybe I should start taking a notebook in the shower and to bed). My “aha!” moments, inconveniently, never really happen when I’m in a brainstorming session or when I’m in a call with a client or sitting at my screenwriting strategy and planning documents. Oh no, that would be too easy.

In fact most of my creative ideas, I’ve found, happen on walks or when I’m relaxing at home. Turns out, I’m not at all unique in that. A study found that creativity was improved by walking (as opposed to sitting).[5]

So, instead of sitting staring at your screen (and, if you’re anything like me, getting more frustrated by the minute) just walk away—literally. Get outside and just walk. Even if you don’t have the “aha!” moment you’re looking for, you’re probably going to be likelier to stumble upon a creative breakthrough later for having taken the break.

6. Breaks Are Good for Your Health

A healthier you is a more productive you. There’s nothing quite like a health crisis to knock your productivity, after all.

Breaks aren’t only a necessity for your mental health but your physical health, too. This is particularly notable for office workers and those of us who sit at desks and screens for vast quantities of the day. Back problems, cardiovascular problems, and weight gain, or even obesity are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damage experts believe that prolonged sitting can do.

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So, not only is taking a break great for your energy levels, it’s imperative for your physical health. Stand up, move, and walk. If you can’t get out for a long walk, just take a 15-minute stroll around the block. It’s good for you in so many different ways.

Our physical and mental health is intrinsically linked to how well we perform at work. So, don’t feel guilty for prioritizing your health. It’s good for your work in the long term, too.

Tips for Fitting Breaks in

I’m self-employed with the flexibility to work hours to suit me, my family, and our schedules. I also know that I am far more productive in the mornings than in the afternoons, so I take my breaks in the afternoon very often.

I’m also fortunate that our office is very close to a stunning reservoir with jaw-droppingly beautiful walks. So, I often take some time out in the afternoon to talk or run there and invariably find that it leaves me feeling far more equipped to deal with the rest of the day.

But I also know that not everybody is in that position. So, if you find you’re working for someone else and you’re working set office hours, perhaps without much space for getting out for walks, here are a few tips for getting your breaks in:

  1. Eat your lunch away from your desk wherever possible. Stand up if you can (standing desks, breakfast bars, and so forth are helpful here). Making lunch a set time each day that you actually take a break is a simple way to make that time within the allowances of a pre-set working day
  2. Walk before work. Even if you just park a mile further from your office or get off your transport a stop or two earlier, you buy yourself a precious few moments to walk, decompress, and just relax while getting in some physical activity. When I was working for someone else a few years ago, I found this a life-changing habit and it was such a small change. I arrived at work feeling refreshed and ready.
  3. Switch off at home. The nature of the ever-connected society we live in is that we are plugged into our work constantly. But try to take time out—completely out. When you’re not at work and you can take the time out, capitalize. I also know that some workplaces have a toxic culture of expecting prolonged hours, evening work, and dragging staff onto projects over the weekend. If you’re in the position to push back, please do. No job is worth having no life outside of the office.
  4. Try to lead from the front and build a culture of smart working. If you’re a leader, then encourage your team to work smarter—encouraging breaks to improve productivity and allowing people to experiment with other productivity techniques like Pomodoro.
  5. If you’re not in management, then perhaps speak to management and sell the business benefits of a smarter working culture. It’s a simple business case to make when you can prove productivity increases and more gets done in a day if people take a full lunch break for example. See if you can get them on board.

A Necessity, Not a Luxury

Over the years, I’ve come to regard breaks as an absolute necessity if I want to work smarter and continue to deliver my best work. It’s a mindset shift from ten years ago when I regarded them as a self-indulgent luxury I needed to live without.

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If you’ve been denying yourself breaks, then maybe start fitting one in each day and seeing what difference it makes to you and your work. I don’t imagine you’ll be disappointed. Now, please do excuse me. I’m off for a walk.

More About How To Restore Energy

Featured photo credit: Christin Hume via unsplash.com

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Stacey MacNaught

Small business owner, public speaker and marketing expert obsessed with working smarter.

How to Focus on Goals and Get Rid of Distractions Why Is It Important To Set Realistic Goals? Why You Need To Take A Break From Work For Good Productivity How To Motivate Yourself When You Are Overwhelmed in Life

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Published on July 15, 2021

Shift Work Disorder: 17 Ways to Manage it Better

Shift Work Disorder: 17 Ways to Manage it Better
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Are you having trouble sleeping? Or do you feel like you can barely stay awake when you need to? Are you left tired and irritable, lacking the joy and motivation that life once brought? If these complaints are tied to your long or rotating work schedule, you may be suffering from shift work disorder—a common ailment among professions with schedules outside the typical 9 am to 6 pm range.[1]

Why does it matter? Let’s be honest—being tired stinks. It feels terrible and leaves you vulnerable to many health risks that well-rested people aren’t as susceptible to. Not only that, but it can also wreak havoc on your relationships and quality of life.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to help manage this, and you can start trying them out today! Some of the solutions may not be what you expect. For instance, you might have linked improved sleep to exercise, but did you know that being compassionate with yourself can also have an impact?

Who Are Affected by Shift Work Disorder?

Twenty-five million people are shift workers in the country, so you are far from alone if you are struggling with this. Shift work disorder is a condition frequently affecting anyone who works a job where their schedule is outside standard business hours. Nurses, police officers, firefighters, and factory workers are common examples of professions with schedules that rotate around the clock.

Rotating shifts naturally leads to a change in one’s schedule, including sleep. As your sleep schedule becomes more chaotic, your body is unable to adjust and regulate itself and can result in having difficulty falling or staying asleep. This inevitably leads to less sleep, which is where some big problems can arise.

What Are the Symptoms?

Sleep is one of the most important (and underrated) aspects of our lives. Enough sleep and good quality sleep are critical to our emotional, mental, and physical health.

Insufficient sleep can lead to a significantly increased risk of physical health problems, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and gastrointestinal disorders. Mentally, being tired contributes to having scattered concentration, difficulty processing information, and being more likely to make mistakes or have an accident. Emotionally, the fallout of being chronically exhausted is linked to poor emotional regulation including being irritated more quickly, as well as an increased likelihood of developing anxiety and depression.[2]

Any of this sound familiar? If so, keep reading for some scientifically-based tips to help you manage your sleep better and get your life back.

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17 Ways to Manage Shift Work Disorder Better

Quality sleep, or the lack thereof, impacts us physically, mentally, and emotionally. The most impactful plan of attack against shift work disorder and to regain quality sleep must also reflect that.

I suggest reading through all of the tips and formulating a plan based on what you think will work for you. Start by trying out one thing and build from there as you are able. Remember to construct a plan that addresses your physical, mental, and emotional health.

Let’s start in the most obvious place first:

Your Job

1. Make Your Schedule the Best It Can Be

Randomly rotating shifts has been found to have the worst impact on our health.[3] If you have to rotate your schedule, request to rotate shifts in a clockwise fashion.

For example: work the day shift, rotate to the nights, then to the early morning shift, then start back on the day shift. Sounds silly? It’s not. Studies show that our bodies more easily adjust to changes in schedule when completed in a clockwise manner.[4] This is because of something called our circadian rhythm—24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock that carry out essential functions. The most commonly known of these is sleep. It has been discovered that our circadian rhythm adjusts forward more easily than it does backward.

2. Speak to Your Manager About Keeping Your Workplace Bright

Special lights have been designed to assist with circadian rhythm. It turns out that absorbing bright light that is most similar to sunlight can positively impact regulating our circadian rhythm.[5]

3. Avoid a Long Commute to and From Work

Having a long drive home after working a rotating shift is statistically not in your best interest. It’s been shown that fatigued/sleepy employees are 70% more likely to have a workplace accident and 33% more likely to be involved in a traffic accident.[6]

To avoid putting yourself at risk by driving when you’re not at your best, catch a nap before leaving work, pull over to sleep, or stay at a friend’s house nearby.

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4. Speak to Your Manager About Your Concerns

Many companies that operate around the clock are willing and able to make accommodations to those working alternative shifts. Whether it’s helping you find a schedule that works best for you or connecting you with other programs designed to support your well-being, being in good communication with your employer is to everyone’s benefit.

Sleep Attitudes and Environment

5. Change Your Perspective and Start Prioritizing Sleep

Here’s the deal: despite some pretty well-known dangerous effects of not getting enough sleep, somewhere along the line, our society began to think of sleep as a luxury. Some even consider it a badge of honor to “power through” without much (or any) sleep. People have been made to feel embarrassed or lazy if they get the recommended amount of sleep each night.

Here’s the bottom line: sleep is not a luxury.

Let me repeat that—sleep is not a luxury, and getting a consistent and healthy amount does not make you a slacker. Sleep is actually when our body does a lot of repair work on itself—blood vessels, muscles, and other organs. Sleep also boosts our immunity.

If we could help people feel as proud about sleeping as we do about them working out regularly or sticking to a healthy diet, people might be a lot healthier.

6. Make Your Sleep Space as Conducive to Rest as Possible

This means tweaking your environment so it’s as enticing as possible for your body to go to sleep. Keep the room dark using blackout blinds, reduce the temperature (our body rests best when slightly cool), limit interruptions (phone calls, visitors, noise), and remove electronic devices.[7]

Set yourself up for success by supporting yourself through your surroundings. If you wanted to lose weight, you wouldn’t frequently surround yourself with cookies, cake, and ice cream, right? Same idea here.

Personal Habits and Choices

7. Stick to a Regular Sleep Schedule as Closely as Possible—on Workdays and Days Off

This is obviously difficult when your schedule changes on the regular, but the more consistent you can keep your bedtime, the easier time your body has getting to sleep and staying that way.[8]

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8. Allow Yourself Time to Catch Up on Sleep

Having enough days off to rest and recuperate is an important aspect of protecting your health. You wouldn’t expect to be able to drive across the country on one tank of gas, right? Filling your own personal gas tank is just as important.

9. Take Naps, but Don’t Overdo It

It’s recommended by the Cleveland Clinic to take a 90-minute nap just before starting your shift and then a 30-minute nap during your “lunch break” at work.[9] Again, this is all about keeping some gas in your tank and not allowing yourself to get to the point where you are running on fumes. Short naps will help you stay refreshed and alert on the job.

10. Limit Caffeine to the Start of Your Shift

Most of us love a good hit of caffeine, especially when we are tired. But overdoing it or having caffeine too late in your shift can negatively impact your ability to get to sleep when you finally have the time to do so. Moderate your intake to help yourself get some quality sleep.

11. Avoid Alcohol Before Bed

Unwinding after work with a drink can be tempting. It can make you drowsy, which many people mistakenly believe will help them get better sleep. Unfortunately, alcohol will actually keep you awake (or wake you up later). This obviously impairs your ability to get the quality of sleep you are looking for.

12. Don’t Smoke

Much like alcohol, people turn to nicotine to “calm their nerves” or help them relax. Also, like alcohol, nicotine has been shown to disrupt sleep.[10] Cut back or cut this habit out as able.

13. Eat Well and Eat Smart

Choose convenient nutritious meals and snacks. Nutritious food is the foundation from which our body creates the needed chemicals for quality sleep. Foods high in saturated fat and sugar have been shown to have the worst impact on sleep.[11]

Also, timing is everything as they say. Eating too much or not enough before your shift can cause you to feel tired.

14. Get Regular Exercise

According to numerous studies, exercise can be as effective in treating sleep disorders as prescription medication.[12] Yes, you read that correctly—regular exercise is the bomb!

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This one can be tricky to convince people to do, especially if they are already tired and short on time. If you don’t have the time to hit the gym, take a brisk walk, dance around your living room to your favorite song, or mow your lawn. Despite feeling tired, getting up off the couch and moving around (moderate to vigorous exercise) is best for reducing the time it takes to get to sleep and improving the quality of sleep.

Mental and Emotional

15. Establish Consistent Practices That Help You Relax Before Bed

This can include yoga, deep breathing, a warm bath, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, meditation, and hypnosis. These are designed to reduce physical tension and quiet your mind from thoughts that are keeping you awake. There are lots of great apps and free videos that can help you with this.

16. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT as it’s known, works by helping you to identify thoughts and behaviors that make sleep worse and then developing new habits consisting of thoughts and behaviors that promote sleep. There are psychologists and life coaches who are specially certified in CBT that can help you with this.

17. Show Yourself Some Compassion

Sounds silly? Well, it’s not. A seven-year study conducted at the University of Mannheim concluded that the daily practice of self-compassion positively impacted people’s quality of sleep.[13]

The concept of showing ourselves compassion is foreign (and uncomfortable) to many of us. Try going easy on yourself for being grumpy, and give yourself some credit for the efforts you are making in tough circumstances. What would you say to your best friend if they were struggling with the same situation? I routinely ask my clients this question as it’s sometimes easier to be compassionate to others than ourselves. This tip might take some practice, but the effort could result in a better night’s sleep.

Final Thoughts

Okay, there you have it—17 different ways you can help yourself manage shift work disorder, feel more rested, more like yourself, and enjoy life again. To get started with your plan, pick out a few tips that you can implement today, but remember to choose a well-rounded approach—addressing the physical, mental and emotional.

Be patient with yourself. It takes time to build new habits. And show yourself some compassion and kindness—you might just be able to sleep better when you do.

Featured photo credit: Yuris Alhumaydy via unsplash.com

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