Boost productivity with breaks, it sounds counterintuitive. After all, productivity means that you are doing effective work. And no effective work happens on a break. In fact, this is a limited view on productivity.
In the past, more hours of work had a direct effect on production. More man-hours, meant more manufactured goods. The relation between time and the items produced was obvious.
Yet even then people had the right idea about productivity. Allegedly, Ford shocked the world by adopting the 40-hour workweek. And it worked! Even thought it made no sense at the time, it boosted productivity.
Now we know better. Intrinsic motivation is a key factor in boosting productivity. In fact, a lot of things are different. Yet, we seem to be sticking to the same old paradigm. Today’s worker is a knowledge worker. Hierarchies flatten and teams create better synergies. The coworking movement is reshaping how work is being done.
Today, strategic breaks are far from counterintuitive. Here’s how they work and how you can use them to boost productivity.
To the knowledge worker, productivity equals focus
Think of a graphic designer making a logo for a startup. Firstly, there are various requests to consider. Oftentimes, the client does not know what he wants. And expert decisions need to be made. Also, the overall “big picture” comes into play.
Secondly, after some amount of thinking, the designer starts working. In fact, the work has already begun. It was all that information processing. Now, in the execution stage, a knowledge worker converts information.
Lastly, several logos are now ready for sampling to an audience. The audience reacts very well to a few designs. Yet the designs are rather different. Hence, it is difficult to merely piece them together. This is when creativity comes into play. The designer does something rather mysterious, and the final design is amazing.
This all happens because a knowledge worker deals with information. And processing information requires intelligence and attention. Hence, a knowledge worker uses the same abilities that are useful to studying.
Further on, any knowledge worker improves on the value of the processed information. Increasing complexity, or, perhaps, simplifying it. Changing it in creative ways or structuring it in useful ways. All throughout, this is a process of converting information to higher-value information. Hence, it is a function of focus.
Focus is what provides the quality and extent of knowledge work. Therefore, any knowledge worker should develop better focus. And not just any type of focus. Exam-study-like focus. However, knowledge workers burn focus away. And their productivity soars.
Sustainable productivity starts with renewable focus
Productivity is focus. And focus doesn’t last long. The average person can push for 20 minutes of concentration. Also, this has little to do with IQ or emotional intelligence. It has a lot to do with practice. The more you practice, the better you focus. Experienced meditators can focus for hours. And so do neurosurgeons.
Focus means you aim at something and dissolve the world around it. Nothing else is relevant. Anything else (such as interruptions) subsides. All your mental processes overlap with the discrete information on which you focus. You move from a superficial understanding to a profound wealth of knowledge.
True concentration extends over the working memory, and links previous knowledge and insight. And long periods of focus burn away energy and resources even faster. No wonder it’s tough to maintain! Getting tired while focusing is a process. A gradual process. Your ability to concentrate slowly diminishes.
It’s similar to running. At first, you’re doing well. Highly efficient, not much energy is wasted. You feel comfortable. After a while, you start feeling the burn. It hits you, but you can take it. Instead of opting out, you keep pushing. After a while, you tire, faster and faster. At some point, you hit the wall and that’s it. You can barely walk. You’re done before you realize you’re done. It takes great self-awareness to know when to stop.
This applies to concentration. The overall decay of your concentration accelerates as you focus. And not knowing when you’ve disintegrated your focus invites a series of issues. Firstly, it’s a procrastination opportunity. Secondly, lack of focus on a task results in that task taking forever to finish. Thirdly, you never allow your focus to regenerate. And that creates negativity about your work. And you can’t generate goal contagion if you’re negative.
Rejuvenate your focus and boost your productivity
Boosting productivity is managing focus decay. Ironically, you’re increasing productivity by making sure your focus doesn’t go away. You are managing losses. And wasted effort. But waste management is the future.
If you’d plot focus as a function, it would look a bit like a demand down-slopping curve. Starting from high focus in the first few minutes to very low focus after an hour. Now imagine you cut the curve while the focus is relatively high. Relative to the average focus over time. There is an optimal point where you can “cut the curve.” That, however, is too much detail right now. I’ve written more about this here.
When you “cut the curve”, you’re effectively taking a break. The direct effect of that break is that your focus starts slopping down from a higher point. Over time, the effect is maintaining higher focus.
Where is productivity in all of this? Productivity is the area below the curve. It’s focus X time. And boosting productivity means increasing the area below the curve. If your curve keeps staying high in focus, you maximize productivity.
In effect, you boost productivity by taking a break at the right time. And you cover for the productivity lost with regained focus. It might not seem like much. But the math ads up. Over time, your productivity goes up.
Strategic breaks and where to find them
There are several ways you can use breaks to your advantage. Strategic breaks are meant to boost your productivity. Moreover, they enhance your overall work experience. Don’t worry, this is easy to master. All you have to do is follow these easy steps:
#1 Be mindless for productivity
You know what it feels like. It feels like you’ve gone nowhere. That you’ve succumbed to the warm blanket of bland nothingness. And those few minutes are amazingly sweet. A computer goes to “sleep” that way: taking an idle break. The mindless break is the great yawn of your mind. And you take it involuntarily.
So, go ahead and do this right after lunch. Those few minutes in which your brain floats in satisfaction. Have nothing else going on in your mind.
#2 Be mindful for productivity
Start your workday with a 20-minute break. Spend some time contemplating. Do no other activity than think about things. It helps with setting you up for the day. And it gets you closer to your emotions. Also, being mindful is a self-actualizing practice. Go for it.
Being mindful might actually makes you do something selfless. And doing something selfless increases your efficiency.
#3 Take communication breaks for productivity
Humans are social animals, true. Yet, being productive does not mean communicating all the time. In fact, shutting down communications will improve your productivity. Not only will you benefit from not being interrupted, but you’ll also get to reduce anxiety.
Communication can make us anxious. We feel stressed, pressured. And we build mind-models of how others think. And those models are assumptions that hurt us.
A lot of our thinking goes to satisfying others. Or maintaining a certain social persona. While much of it becomes second nature, it’s still very taxing.
So go ahead and take a break from all conversations. You’ll feel… relieved. In return, this will boost your creativity. It’s an energy surge.
Overall, organizing your focus through strategic breaks enables you to be more productive.