Take a break – you’ll get more done!

Hold on, I’ll be right back….

I’m going to go take a quick break, ‘cause, you know, it’s just plain good for you. 

I love a ‘To Do’ list.  I will add things I have just finished to my list, just so I can cross them off. At home or at work, there’s not much better than the sense of accomplishment when things come off the ‘To Do’ list. I feel productive, happy to be getting things done, and making progress.

The problem is that when I am not working through a list of projects, I get anxious about ‘wasting time.’  When I take a break, I fret about all the things I could be finishing, if only I were working the list. It is a struggle to relax.  

But neuroscience tells us that breaks and rest are a big Something for our health and mental well-being – and for being more productive. Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, says, “We need to rethink the relationship between work and rest, acknowledge their intimate connection, and rediscover the role that rest can play in helping us be creative and productive.”

His book describes the research that has been done on the relationship between rest,  productivity, and creativity. Much of this research examines how our conscious and subconscious work together during periods of effort and of rest.

Different kinds of rest open pathways in different parts of our brain.  Building these pathways between the subconscious and conscious thought strengthens our ability to solve problems and get things done.

In his book, Pang identifies four key concepts of productive rest:

  1. Rest and Work are partners, not adversaries
  2. Rest includes active behaviors, like hobbies and exercise and is not simply passive activities
  3. Rest is a skill that can be learned and improved
  4. Deliberate rest stimulates and sustains creativity and problem solving

Pang also describes three primary types of rest: 

  • Passive rest – lying on the couch, watching television, waiting in line
  • Physical activity – walking, enjoying a hobby, participating in a sport
  • Mental rest – napping, sleeping, meditating, day-dreaming

Rest benefits everyone — people in high pressure jobs, artists and writers who are paid to be creative, and parents, who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are spending an average of 7 hours every workday taking care of children.  Anyone who “works” at anything can benefit from incorporating deliberate periods of rest into their day. Pang says, “[Rest] allows them to recover the mental and physical energy that they expend in those intensive [work] periods, but is also allowing their creative minds, their creative subconscious, to take up these problems and work on them more effectively.”

Pang asserts that “if you recognize that work and rest are two sides of the same coin, that you can get more from rest by getting better at it and that by giving it a place in your life you’ll stand a better chance of living the life you want, you’ll be able to do your job, and your life’s work, better.”

So, how do we get the benefits that rest offers in lives that are overwhelmed with activity, with technology that keeps us tethered to our jobs 24/7, in a culture that values busyness and sees inactivity as laziness? 

Awareness

The first step is awareness.  We can start with recognizing the benefits of rest and trusting the promise that periods of rest can help us be more productive during our working hours.  Awareness helps counter the cultural negativity around resting.

Routine

Pang recommends that we organize our day so we have time for rest.  Create a routine that incorporates periods of effort and work, and periods of rest.  These rest periods can be passive (laying on the couch, reading a book) or active (taking a brisk walk, participating in a team sport, taking a yoga class).

Practice

And finally, practice.  Make sure there are periods of rest each and every day.  Some creative people work with a timer on their desk, setting the timer so that for 10 minutes of every hour they are up from their desk, away from the work.  They find that upon their return to the task, they are more productive than they would be had they slogged through the next hour without that period of time for their subconscious mind to mull over the task at hand.

Organize your day so you have time for both scheduled hours for focused intensive work and hours for rest – time for yourself for walks, naps, or hobbies which give your creative mind time to work.  

For rest to be most effective, says Pang, “You have to take it.”  

Most people are able to work at a high level of productivity for about 90 minutes to two hours at a time, and in fact for a total of 4-5 hours a day.  Says Pang, “If you can get a high level of work for that period, that’s actually a really good [productive] day.” 

So, about the pressure to keep working at that ‘To Do’ list?  Oh! Wait, I just had a great idea while I was taking a break! I’m going to add “take a break” to the To Do list.

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