All too often, professionals burn themselves out by not taking breaks. Here is a bit of executive coaching on why breaks are so important.
The modern workplace has become one in which no one takes any breaks. Walk by any company in the US around noon and you are almost guaranteed to see someone eating their lunch at their desk while working.
…not what any executive coach would recommend…
In fact, seeing a person not eating at their desk is a bit of a rarity in some firms.
Working all day long without a break has even become a source of pride.
One friend of mine once bragged that he was so busy he didn’t have time to use the bathroom all day. Seriously… he didn’t feel he could take 3 minutes out of his day to urinate.
Of course, we all know deep down that this is ridiculous. And, as any good executive coach can tell you, there is research to back this up.
A 2003 study by Tucker, Folkard, and Macdonald in the journal Lancet found that workers in a large manufacturing plant increased their likelihood of having an accident as they worked a two hour shift. In fact, an accident was twice as likely in the last 30 minutes as it was in the first 30 minutes.
They also found that following a break, risk reset itself to what it was in the first 30 minutes… thus the mandatory break after 2 hours of working in many manufacturing and construction related industries.
Ernest Rossi, in his book, “The 20 Minute Break” provides additional context by describing ultradian rhythms in which humans follow a 90-120 minute activity to rest cycle.
The idea is that following 90 minutes of focused mental activity, you need 20 minute to reset yourself.
Earlier in my career, I worked at the executive coaching & training firm The Energy Project, which teaches that the secret to performance is managing energy rather than time.
To say it simply, if you and I are meeting and you haven’t slept in 20 hours, I may have your time but I don’t have your energy. And energy –focused attention – is what will make the difference.
The Energy Project’s work is largely based on work with professional athletes, and tennis stars in particular.
What they found was that the difference between the performance of a top athlete and someone in the next tier largely came down to habits (rituals) that they had formed which allowed them to recover energy more quickly than their rivals between points.
Elite tennis players, after a point is won or lost, do what is termed “the matador walk” which meant that they adopted a good upright posture, frequently played with the strings on their racquet and breathed deeply as they walked back to the line for the next point.
All of which served to reduce their heart rate rapidly.
The result was that their heart rate recovered much more quickly between points relative to their competition, meaning that over the course of a multi-hour game, they were less tired and therefore less prone to making mistakes and more likely to win.
So, where does that leave the modern office worker? In need of systematic rest and good habits around getting it.
To the extent you have control over your schedule, always try to take a break after 90-120 minutes. Get out of your office, walk up some stairs, visit a colleague who makes you laugh, or do whatever it takes to get the blood flowing and reset your attention.
It may not be possible to take 20 minutes every time, but even 5 minutes walking can make a huge difference.
-Just be sure not to use that break to read your email!