Take a Break…

The following is an excerpt from my book; Success with Less Stress: Chapter 2, Take a Break… Enjoy!

‘Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes… Including you.’ Anne Lamott

The next thing I suggest you do is take a break. Seriously?!?!?! First, I ask you to get more sleep, and now I am suggesting you need to take more breaks – just when do I get to work on my goals?

Ah, that’s the kicker – most people think that in order to achieve their goals, to be more successful or even just to manage their heavy workload, that they need to ‘push through’, work harder, spend more time ‘at the office’ etc…. Actually, the bad news is, that working through lunch, taking work home, studying all weekend, or whatever it is that you continue to focus on for extended periods of time, is actually moving your further away from your goal rather than closer to it.

You might be thinking… but I am too busy! I don’t have time to take a break! Ah, if I had a dollar for every-time someone said to me that ‘they don’t have time…’ Sorry folks, but you actually do. ‘I am too busy’ or ‘I don’t have time’ are nice, convenient and sociably acceptable excuses that we tell ourselves and others. (more about this in the chapter on productivity/time management)

Many of us wouldn’t hesitate to take a break after an hour or so of physical exercise, and most people with a regular exercise routine know the value of having a rest day as part of their schedule. But mental breaks? Most people don’t consider the mental fatigue that they are experiencing and the impact that is having on their stress levels, performance and productivity.

The fact is, the more hours you work, and particularly the more hours you work without a break, means the less you will actually achieve. If you don’t believe me, there was a study undertaken by John Pencavel of Stanford University in April 2014 on The Productivity of Working Hours that confirms this.

These days technology allows us to work from anywhere at any time. Which can be great (I love working from home). The idea is that this gives us flexibility and choices around where and when we work. 

Unfortunately, this also has a flip-side, which means many people are connected to their work (and not necessarily to their goals) every waking moment. This means they never really switch off and take a break. Naturally this continued mode of being ‘on’ is not good for stress levels and can actually reduce productivity and leave us to mentally fatigued to focus on our success goals.

While many people feel that there is an expectation that they are and can be available anytime, regretfully. for many of us, we actually create the expectation that we always accessible. Doing this ends up creating more ‘work’ and giving us less time to take a break and truly switch off. I realised I had created that expectation myself while working for a financial services organisation. In this organisation, it was not unusual for employees to be sending and responding to emails of an evening or weekend. In-fact, I can recall one night when I was sitting up with my little girl who was unwell. It was about 1230am. She was lying in the bed with me and seemed quite settled at that point so I thought I would send a couple of quick emails relating to some actions that were on my mind. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised upon sending those emails that just a minute or two later, I received some replies (and no, not out of office replies – actual replies to my emails). The fact that people were replying to me at 1230am, when they should have been asleep (we couldn’t have all had sick children keeping us up that night!) really played on my mind.

A couple of weeks later, I decided to do something really quite radical and take the weekend off. No emailing, no reading of my emails and no replying. It was harder than I thought as I had created such a habit for myself. To ensure I wasn’t tempted to do a ‘quick check’ of what had come through, I turned off the alerts on my phone. This has turned out to be one of the best actions I have ever taken. Not subconsciously listening out for the ‘pings’ of a new email has done wonders for my stress levels and truly allowed me to take genuine breaks and focus on the things that I really want to concentrate on. 

When I arrived at the office on the Monday morning, I had a few people approach me saying ‘hey, I sent you an email over the weekend. I am surprised that you didn’t respond.’ To each of them I replied with a smile on my face, ‘Actually, I decided to take the weekend off and I found I enjoyed it, so I am going to be doing that more in future.’ What do you think their responses were? Unequivocally, every single one of them looked at me and responded genuinely with ‘Good on you!’.  Every. Single. One.

The world hadn’t ended. Disaster’s weren’t looming. No one had died (think about it; unless you are working in a field that requires you to literally save lives, chances are no-one will die if you don’t reply to an email over the weekend).

The benefits of this ‘radical experiment’ turned out to be two-fold. Firstly, I started to truly relax and enjoy my weekends without thinking that I needed to check my phone for new emails. This gave me more time to focus on my success goals including spending more quality time with my daughter. Secondly, and by far the most interesting result of this, was that people stopped sending me emails on the weekend. It just didn’t happen anymore. It was at that point, I realised just how much I had created that expectation in other people around my availability.

So, taking weekends and evenings off is great, but what about taking breaks during the day? Maybe if I am not working at night anymore, I should push through during the day to be sure I get everything done, right? Ah, no.

Ignore the clickbait that tells you that we have an attention span that is less than a goldfish. From the research I have undertaken, the general consensus is that the average adult can focus their attention fully on the task at hand for at best, 20 to 40 minutes. After this amount of time, our concentration wanes and needs to be rebooted.

The breaks that you need at this time are not the ones like updating your Facebook status or checking News.com to see what is happening in the world. They are called ‘distractions’ not breaks. And honestly, I am guilty of these distractions myself. As I have been writing my book on my home PC, I have taken steps such as turning off Facebook and email alerts to ensure that as my concentration dwindles, I don’t take the easy distraction option. The best things you can do is take a break that involves either moving or refuelling (healthy food or drink). And preferably if you are going to be eating, moving to a space away from your desk to do so.

“Don’t worry about breaks every 20 minutes ruining your focus on a task. Contrary to what I might have guessed, taking regular breaks from mental tasks actually improves your creativity and productivity. Skipping breaks, on the other hand, leads to stress and fatigue.” -Tom Rath, New York Times bestselling author

Now, what about holidays and using that annual leave you have accrued? According to a 2015 Roy Morgan Research study, 28% of full-time Australian workers had more than 5 weeks’ annual leave accrued. Take a break people! I often have people say to me that they are too busy to take a holiday or even a short break. That genuinely makes me feel very sad. Thinking back to the expectations that we create, the only reason these people think they are too busy to take a holiday is because that is the story they are telling themselves. Look, how many of us work in such critical and specialised job functions or roles, where if we took a long weekend or heaven forbid a week’s holiday, that the organisation or business would completely collapse without us? Sorry, not sorry, but if you were to get hit by a bus, the organisation would somehow manage to struggle on with-out you. You are replaceable. Someone else can fill in for a day or a week. And if there is really no one else who can do your job, then some serious consideration needs to be given to either a succession planning strategy, or, if you own your own business, how you can set up processes that allow you to step away for a few days.

These days I schedule at least two actual holidays and at least one or two long weekend breaks a year. I run my own business and do not employee other people, so there is no-one to step in and do the work while I am away. My strategy? I plan the holidays in advance, book them in my calendar and then let all my clients know when I won’t be available. Rather than being detrimental to my business, I have found this to be quite the opposite. My clients know that if they want to book me, they need to get in early around the times that I am working. Naturally I have built up good professional relationships with my clients, however I have found that by being clear and honest around my availability, they will provide me with all the flexibility they can. 

In my early thirties (early to mid-career climbing years) I decided to take a year off from work altogether. I took a four-wheel drive, a boat and a tent and spent a year camping and fishing my way around Australia. What a wonderful experience that was! When the money ran out and it was time to come back to ‘the real world’. I had a twinge of concern that taking such a break early to mid-career would be detrimental to my job prospects. Of course, quite the opposite turned out to be true. Every role that I interviewed for when I returned to the workforce, I was offered a position. I ended up being able to choose which role and organisation I wanted to work in. My thoughts on why that was are around the fact that most of the interviewers were fascinated (and some admitted to being a little envious) about my year travelling. After such a great break, I was a relaxed and confident interviewee who had a whole bunch of new life experiences under my belt and felt completely comfortable in my own skin. This naturally came out in my interactions with the various hiring managers.

How Breaks will help you achieve Success with Less Stress (Benefits)

You will have the headspace to re-evaluate and refocus your goals

According to Harvard Business Review ‘When you work on a task continuously, it is easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives.’

Your creativity and problem solving abilities will improve

Without a doubt, many of my best ideas have come to me while I have taken a break and been out walking. I have loved just ‘going for a walk’ since I was a young adult. I have always said, ‘walking is just as good for my mind as it is for my body’. To back up my moments of ‘inspiration’ while walking, a Stanford University study found that walking increased creative inspiration by approximately 60%. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively,” Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking.

Improve your memory and learning capacity

Similar as we discussed in our Chapter on Sleep, taking a nap break during the day has been shown to improve learning, memory and increase mental alertness. Ah excuse me Rachel – that sounds very good and all, but, I can’t take naps in the office! Hmmm, maybe not or maybe you can? Many offices these days have multipurpose rooms, alcoves or small meeting rooms that you can book and take a nap for 30 minutes during your lunch break. Trust me, I have done it myself and it did wonders. But don’t just take my word for it, some famous day time nappers include; Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Sir Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. In-fact, research undertaken by NASA revealed that a 26 minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness by 54%.

Your productivity will improve

Yes, just like getting more sleep, taking breaks will actually improve your productivity. According to a study undertaken by The Muse (a career resource hub), found that the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before starting work again. The reason being that is you work in 52 minute bouts you are able to stay focused and work with intense purpose. The 17 minute break is not to be used for checking LinkedIn or other tasks. You use that time to move and refresh. Besides, your bodies were never designed to sit for 8 hours (or more!) straight.

Try these things:

Find time to switch off. Don’t check your phone for emails or messages anytime you have a ‘free’ moment. If something is critically important, the person who needs you won’t be sending an email or a text, they will call you

Please, take a lunch break. And take it away from your desk. Preferably away from your office completely. Even better, go for a walk. And even better again, go for a walk in the park

Book a holiday or even a weekend getaway. Don’t just plan it or think about it. Book it and schedule the break into your calendar

Download and use a Nap App. My favourite is Nap26 which was developed by NASA.

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