Jun 28, 2017
Maybe you’ve seen this headline recently: “Americans are working harder than ever.”
The average annual vacation days taken by Americans in 2016 is 16 days. This compares to 30 days in many countries, from France to Brazil. And in America, the average workweek is 47 hours.
So what are Americans doing with all this work time? Are they actually more productive? Not really.
But there is still a lot of pressure to work long hours both to both prove our usefulness and, if we are hourly, to make the extra money. How can we keep all that extra work time from raising our stress levels and ruining both our work time and our personal time?
One insight that organizational psychologists discovered quite a while ago is that continuous work without breaks does not give the most productivity. Instead, the quality and actual amount of “work” done (whether it is assembly line or report writing) goes down over time. Breaks literally “charge us up” enough to more than justify the time spent taking them.
According to this article in the muse by Julia Gifford, teleworkers in the top 10% of productivity took a 17 minute break every 52 minutes. 17 minutes! That seems like a lifetime when the people around you are (seemingly) working away. How could that be? The answer comes down to what is going on during the other 75% of the time. There is a big difference between working at a bureaucratic, measured pace, versus working with intense focus as if a deadline is looming. The difference is both in attitude and intention. But if we know performing at that level of intensity will be only for a short period of time, with a decent break at the end, we can muster our resolve much easier to work with high focus.
So what should we do during these breaks? According to the study, those super-workers generally spent their 17 minutes away from their computers--walking, chatting with coworkers, or reading a book. When it’s your brain that is tired from work, you need to rest it or stretch it, just like you would for muscles. Those longer breaks helped the superstars be intensely focused during the next 52 minutes of work--enough that they were the most productive.
I coach my clients in using the HeartMath system to quickly put themselves into a calm, alert state. When people practice this regularly (I only recommend a few minutes, not 17!) during their workday, they find themselves feeling more productive and much less stressed by the end of the day. It has the dual advantage of:
1. Quickly shifting them down from a high intensity (from either focused or stressful work) into a calm state
2. Raising their resilience to prepare for an upcoming period of stress or intensity.
What’s more, their co-workers can’t even tell they are doing it, unless they notice the calm focus, and ask why.
Our bodies and minds actually thrive on a healthy amount of stress--pushing us to grow and excel in what we are doing. But we need to recognize that without true rest and recharging, stress accumulates to produce fatigue, exhaustion and burnout.
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