Is time really your scarcest resource?
Being knowledge workers, we spend most of our working hours processing information, solving problems and making decisions. These activities inevitably deplete our mental energy – including our ability to innovate and make effective decisions – and stress, distractions, discomfort and multitasking only add to this. Our mental energy is finite, and can run out faster than the number of hours in a day. Research shows that as the day progresses, people make worse and worse decisions. So it is wise to treat mental capacity as a scarce resource and make careful choices about how to use it and restore it.
Apart from our mental energy, our attention span is also finite. Obviously, how long we can focus on a task and maintain a peak state of mind depends on many factors. But even if we have ideal conditions to be in the zone – we love what we do, and are working without distractions in a supportive environment – we still need to take regular breaks to maintain our attention and mental energy. It’s estimated that the longest time we can effectively focus on a task without a break is around 40 minutes.
Do you know the feeling when you are facing a mental block that you can’t seem to get around, and trying to push through doesn’t help? You go round and round in circles, with the words and numbers in front of you becoming meaningless, and your mind wanders off to all sorts of places. By this stage you are certainly overdue for a break.
Although we often put pressure on ourselves and our team to maintain productivity throughout the day, pushing though mental exhaustion, instead of taking time to recharge our batteries, is counterproductive. We inevitably slow down and make worse decisions, and we become irritable and impulsive. Ironically, the more we work, the more our productivity declines.
Even when we are aware that it’s time for a break, if we don’t have any attractive options, it might be easier to just keep working.
Taking quality breaks
Not all activities that we enjoy doing during our break times help us recharge. It can be tempting to surf the internet, chat with friends online or clean out our personal mailbox, but these activities can in fact be quite draining, as they usually involve dealing with distractions, taking in new information, making decisions, and juggling between tasks – exactly as our work does.
An activity can only be restorative if it doesn’t put the same sort of demands on our physical and mental energy as our work does. For example, exercise, meditation, socialising, reading a book, watching a movie, or playing games can be good restorative activities after doing intellectual work. And sometimes the best thing we can do is allow our mind to wander. (Research shows that mind-wandering can greatly increase our success in solving creative problems.)
Since many of us are addicted to mental stimulation, taking a break from technology and choosing less stimulating activities requires self-control and planning.
Making it a habit
Just because we know how important it is to take quality breaks doesn’t mean it will become a habit. We need to create the right conditions in order to change old work patterns.
We need to feel that we have permission to take a break when we need to, without seeing it as unproductive time. When productivity is defined too narrowly (e.g. as sitting at a desk or making visible progress), it’s more likely that we will either skip breaks or feel guilty about taking them, and so won’t end up relaxing at all.
We need to listen to the signals from our mind and body, understand which activities deplete or refuel our inner resources, and learn how to nurture our physical and mental energy. Developing and following a restoration routine that works for us – without compromising our responsibilities – takes time, effort and discipline.
And obviously, we also need a space that is inviting and suitable to help us recharge. Taking breaks in the same space where we work is not a good idea for many reasons.
The break space
A break space, in order to support restoration, should ideally:
- Make it easy for us to engage in restorative activities and difficult to engage in those that are similar to our work
- Be a space that feels a long way away from the place that exhausted us. It doesn’t need to be physically far, but it needs to have a very different style and ambience, and divert our attention from work. Quality external views, unique decor and objects, artworks, images and music can all serve as positive distractions.
- Be a comfortable, attractive and pleasant environment, a space which encourages us to take breaks, and where we enjoy spending time
- Be a safe space where we are not observed, challenged or judged, and where we can predict what will happen, with no surprises
Honouring the needs and limitations of our mind and body, and giving ourselves the opportunity to take breaks in a suitable space, will pay huge dividends. Coming back to work with a fresh mind gives a great boost to our productivity, and substantially improves our long-term results.