European countries are known for their luxurious amounts of annual vacation and low working hours. The typical workweek in places like Denmark and the Netherlands is 30 hours – significantly less than the United States. While it might seem like this would lead to a decrease in productivity and wealth, the opposite is the case: the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden all have higher per capita GDP than the United States.
Americans tend to think that longer hours = greater productivity, and that your productivity continues to climb directly in proportion to the amount of hours worked. It’s typical in our workaholic culture to brag about pulling all-nighters or putting in 70-hour workweeks, priding themselves on a lack of sleep and bleary eyes.
As European countries have shown with their work policies, more time spent does not always equal greater rewards. While periods of rest are sometimes looked down upon as lazy or inefficient in a competitive American work environment, at the end of the day, the greatest productivity is achieved by those who work smartly and take strategically planned breaks.
Humans have their mental and physical limits, and in fact your productivity sharply decreases if you try to fight your body’s limits and push through exhaustion. Attention span goes in waves – your mind cycles through periods of concentration and needs to refresh itself during lulls in order to continue being able to concentrate.
Studies have shown that we have a reservoir of decision-making ability that gets used up over the course of the day. Courtroom judges have been found to make quicker, more rash decisions in the afternoon. President Obama is known for streamlining his decision process to only think about important decisions – to remove the trivial tasks and decision making throughout his day, he only wears two different types of suits and his meals are already decided. Cutting out monotonous daily decision tasks, Obama leaves his mind fresh to work on the important problems at hand.
There’s a growing body of research that shows that periods of downtime are essential for your brain. As the New York Times notes in an article on taking breaks, mental concentration should be thought of as you would sets of exercises – you need rest periods in between lifting weights to lift your highest potential. Like your muscles, your brain needs these rest periods to sustainably “workout” throughout the day.
Here some tips to avoid burning out and increase your efficiency and productivity:
Take frequent mental breaks
One popular technique for measuring out breaks is the “Pomodoro Technique”. It works by having you set a timer for 25 minutes in which you work without interruption. When the timer ends, you take a five minute break. Using this work pace, you can measure out the amount of “Pomodoros” you need to complete a task and gauge your flow. Taking these frequent breaks can keep your mind on task since you know you have another break awaiting you shortly.
Consider also making extended downtime a daily ritual. While it may not always be practical to practice mediation for 15 minutes or take a short nap at your workplace, such activities can clear your mind and lower stress, allowing you to revisit your tasks with a renewed sense of focus. If you’re feeling especially pressured about a particular task at hand, rather than try and pointlessly push through it and produce mediocre work, walk away from the task for a few minutes. More likely than not, your end result will be of higher quality.
Step away from the “sad desk lunch”
All too often we try and power through our work while simultaneously eating lunch. Even worse, we eat our lunch while mindlessly clicking through email or social media streams. By 2 or 3 in the afternoon, we are completely drained, reading the same sentence three times over before getting any meaning out of it. It’s easy to reach for coffee to counteract the brain fog, but typically an attention deficit is a result of overstraining yourself mentally.
Take the time to refuel yourself, physically and mentally, and take a proper lunch break. Use the time to do something different that look at a screen – read, go for a walk, or eat lunch with your colleagues. Even a simple break from your workflow will refresh you and leave you energized for the afternoon.
Look at the big picture
Sometimes it’s hard to allow yourself a break when you have a daunting task list. You might feel that taking a break is the last thing you should be doing when you are in the middle of a big project. If you have the energy to continue working, then by all means, you shouldn’t interrupt your flow. If you find yourself losing concentration or your train of thought, though, take a break. You’ll get your work done more quickly and produce better quality work as a result.
As Tony Schwartz notes in the excellent presentation from 99u, it’s a myth that higher productivity comes from large, stressful workloads. Ultimately, creating an efficient, streamlined approach to your daily routine and maximizing productivity means stepping away periodically.