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Team Productivity

Why You Need a Break and How to Take One

Daniel Threlfall
February 5, 2014

Breaks are important for every conceivable reason. If you fail to take breaks, you’ll erode productivity, turn out poor work, dampen creativity, diminish enjoyment, act like a monster, and eventually burn out. Not taking a break is one of the worst things you can do to yourself.

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As essential as it is for happy human existence, few people know how to take breaks in the right way. Maybe you didn’t even know there was a “right way” to take breaks. Obviously, everyone sleeps at regular intervals, takes vacations, and chills now and then. But do we take our breaks intentionally, knowing how and why to take them? Are breaks just a cultural convention, or worse, a sign of weakness? Or are breaks an inherent and essential component of our mortal sojourn?

We all know intuitively that breaks are important. What’s not so common knowledge is how to take these breaks in a way that will make us become more productive, create better work, enhance relationships, and improve our entire life.

Consider this as your invitation to take a break — and to do it in a way that will improve your happiness, productivity, and longevity.

Say no to two extremes.

There are at least two break-taking extremes that you should avoid.

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Breaking Bad: Four Bad Examples of Breaks

This article will explain how you should implement breaks into your life and work. With that in mind, I want to give you a few warnings about four wrong kinds of breaks.

  1. Working vacations. A break is only a break if you stop working. We’ve probably all been guilty of sneaking in some emails while we’re playing a game with our kids, or spending a few minutes working while on vacation. I say “guilty” because we feel like we’re cheating or violating the integrity of a break. In a sense, we are cheating. We know that we’re supposed to be relaxing, not working. Somehow, we can’t avoid the siren song of work-work-work. Working while you’re on “vacation” means that you aren’t on vacation. A “working vacation” is an oxymoron. You’ve simply relocated your office. In many cases, it’s essential that we spend some time on work, even while we’re off work. As much as possible, however, avoid this type of arrangement. You’ll benefit way more in the long run by resting than you will by working the few hours that you robbed from your vacation.
  2. Sleeping the sleep of the dead in sheer exhaustion every few days. One popular way to take a break is to virtually die every weekend. According to this model, you work like a sleep-deprived draft horse for five days straight, then lie listless and unconscious in your bed for the entire 62-hour weekend. This is burnout/recovery cycle is unnecessary and counterproductive. Instead, it’s better to take smaller breaks during the week that enhance overall productivity and longevity rather than conspire against it.
  3. Sudden or impulsive breaks. One of the most common breaks is the sudden break. On the verge of exhaustion, the sudden breaker goes home after a workday straight from one of Dante’s seven circles, and buys a ticket to Punta Cana. This impulsive break is much-needed and well-deserved. On the other hand, it is ill-conceived, and not as enjoyable or as productive as it can be for recuperative purposes. Regular breaks are better than big fat sudden breaks. On this note, there’s no need to take a vacation that costs the equivalent of a small island. These are awesome, and I too, desire to stay in five-star splendor with an army of concierges waiting to offer me a sip of my limonada on a Bali beach. Here’s the thing, though. You don’t need to take a posh vacation to recover from a time of intense work. If we do the workaholic thing, we’re going to feel as if we deserve a killer vacation. There is, however, a better way.
  4. Uberlong sabbaticals. Burnout begets interminable breaks. Such interminable breaks are not necessary, because burnout is not necessary. If you take regular breaks, you will avoid burnout, and don’t need yearlong trips to exotic locales to learn from yogis, gurus, or jedis.
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Taking breaks is about two things — managing one’s work, and managing one’s non-work. Both must be held in balance. Here’s how to achieve this balance.

Well-Timed Breaks: When should you take a break?

The most important thing about taking breaks is the frequency. Remember, there are two extremes of break-takers — those who don’t do it enough, and those who do it too much. The way to stay in the blissful center is take breaks regularly. It’s hard to do! The workaholic has to discipline himself or herself to stop, unplug, and cease doing! For the driven Type A’s among us, ceasing work is countercultural and maybe even uncomfortable.

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There’s no definitive guide to how many breaks is perfect. I’m simply going to propose a list of breaks that works for me, works for many others, and may work well for you, too.

Glancing at the list below, you may be aghast at the slackerness of it all. However, the secret to being more effective in one’s work is being energized to do that work. You won’t be energized unless you’re taking plenty of strategic breaks.

Smart Breaks: What should you do during your break?

Now, lets get into the actual practice of taking breaks. Sure, you’re taking a break, but what are you going to do?! Some of us, myself included, feel kind of like a small child learning to walk — uncertain about what to do or how to go about it. Sometimes, after a hard-driving ten-hour workday, I come to the end of the day unable to sleep because I’ve been at 6,000 RPM all day long. Here are a few guidelines for managing your break — whether you’re on a ten-minute pause or a ten-day vacation.

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Successful break-taking is the difference between people who burn out, and people who burn bright. Taking the right breaks at the right time isn’t lazy; it’s smart. Without the right kind of breaks, you can bid adieu to any semblance of productive balance in your life. By breaking right, you’re bound for better times.

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