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Can taking more breaks help you to get more done?

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Last week, we set ourselves three challenges in the Cpl Marketing team to see if we could improve our productivity. Annette gave up caffeine and sugar while Katie put away her smartphone for a week and I took on the Rule of 52 and 17. Katie and Annette both posted two articles on the subject, one about why they took on the challenge on the other summarising their results. The eagle eyed among you will have noticed that I, so far, have posted nothing. That’s just the first failure.

I didn’t write anything last week about why 17 minute breaks every 52 mins might boost my productivity because I only managed to follow that pattern for two days. After that I fell into a few old habits, working longer and longer between breaks as my week spiralled ever so slightly out of control.

Why taking more breaks gets more done

Before I get to that, let’s take a quick step back and talk about the challenge I tried to take on. Our latest Future of Work whitepaper outlines the business benefits of a ‘rested’ workplace. It highlights the fact that tired people are less effective than rested people and points out that more work isn’t always ‘more’. It also highlights the importance of taking breaks.

When we chose the challenges mentioned above, we tried to pick the productivity methods we would each find most difficult to adopt – so I chose taking more breaks. Without trying to sound like some kind of martyr, I’m terrible at taking breaks or disengaging from work. I eat lunch at my desk, I read work email on the Luas, and I can’t remember the last time I left the office on time. I often feel like I don’t have time to stop, so I don’t. In case you hadn’t guessed, that’s a bad thing.

So what happened?

Let’s get this out of the way, it’s not an excuse just an explanation, I had a deadline. We had our annual conference last week and I was charged with producing some of the video content used at the event – everything had to be ready by Friday. Normally when I’m editing video I’m likely to do blocks of four or five hours straight so working in 52 minute sprints was a new experience for me.

After day one it became clear that I was struggling with the challenge. Creative work, in my opinion, can’t be done as a sprint. You need to make mistakes, try things out and go back over the same thing a few times to get it right. Momentum builds slowly and then, often out of nowhere, you hit a flow and things start clicking into place. Then my timer ticks down to zero and it’s time to take a break. Flow interrupted and momentum lost.

A few times, after a break, it really felt like I was starting again from scratch. It wasn’t working and my deadline was moving closer while I was twiddling my thumbs for 17 minutes every hour.

The dangers of stress

By Wednesday I had decided I needed a change of approach – abandoning creative flow in favour of an arbitrary break time just made no sense. Instead I decided to relax the schedule and never ‘force’ a break on myself. I still kept an eye on the time but I didn’t stop until I felt ready for a break. Then I took my 17 minute breather before getting back into it. This made a huge difference. Having spent the start of the week getting nowhere, I completely restructured one of the videos in one day and left feeling much more accomplished.

Then on Thursday, I allowed the deadline to get to me. I didn’t take a single break. By the end of the day I was stressed out, working really slowly, and nowhere near finished. I left work late, frustrated, and knowing I had an hour or two in the morning left to finish the job. Thankfully, with a night’s rest and an early start, I managed to finish everything in time – but it was clear my week had not been a good one.

I learned something today…

It would be easy then for me to conclude that neither my own bad habits nor the Rule of 52 and 17 are the answer. However, the only problem I had with the Rule of 52 and 17 were the numbers. Taking regular short breaks and working in bursts did work for me – I just needed to set my own timing.

In the end that may be the key lesson in any change you introduce into your working life. You can’t just copy/paste someone else’s answers into your job. You need to use ideas like this as a guide and find the solution that works best for the unique challenges your job represents. You can make changes that allow you to be more productive, as long as they are the right changes for you. If it’s not working, after a period of testing, you can always adapt again. Just remember that implementing any of these ideas on the week of a major deadline is a bad idea. 

Want to find out more about why taking breaks are important?

Read ‘A Rested Worker is a Productive Worker’