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Some of the best productivity tips out there are counterintuitive. For example, it’s hard to imagine that sitting on a cushion and doing absolutely nothing can make you more productive, but it does.
I think the same is true with taking breaks.
Working straight through fatigue and tiredness to try to get as much done as possible feels more productive, but like with multitasking, you’re not actually more productive. Your mind simply creates the illusion that you’re more productive because you don’t stop working.
During my recent Week of TED productivity experiment, I had the chance to not only watch some great TED talks on the importance of taking breaks, but also to test my hypothesis that taking more breaks makes you more productive.
Experiment, and results
For two straight days during my Week of TED experiment, I took as few breaks as possible, and tried to watch as many TED talks as possible. For two days after that, I listened to my mind and body, and took breaks when either my body or mind was getting restless, while still trying to watch as many talks as possible. On average, I took a five-minute break every two TED talks (they’re 18-minutes long each).
Here’s what I found:
- I was 22% more productive on days where I took frequent breaks (I watched 22% more TED talks)
- I had more energy, and didn’t fatigue as quickly when I took frequent breaks
- I had the chance to chew on the information I consumed a lot more when I took breaks, which added meaning to the experiment
This experiment is naturally far from scientific, but I was blown away by my results. And research on how taking breaks affects productivity seems to conclude with my findings; a recent study in the journal Cognition found that taking breaks significantly improved participants’ focus and productivity, and allowed participants to focus on a task for longer periods of time.
5 more benefits of taking breaks
Here are five more benefits I’ve come across, and observed myself:
- Breaks let you step back from your work, and see it from a higher 10,000 foot perspective.
- Breaks help you rev your brain down, and slow down. This helps you reflect and do better work. According to Carl Honoré, who wrote a book on slowing down, “conventional wisdom tells you that if you slow down you’re roadkill, [but] the opposite turns out to be true. By slowing down at the right moments people find that they do everything better: they eat better, they make love better, they exercise better, they work better, they live better.”
- Breaks give you better ideas. Every seven years Stefan Sagmeister shuts down his New York design studio to take a year-long sabbatical so he can experiment with new designs, and every sabbatical he comes back more inspired than ever. His years off have even made his firm more profitable, even if you account for the year off. Even though Sagmeister takes year-long breaks, I think his results speak strongly for how important breaks are in general.
- Breaks give you time to reflect on your work, which adds meaning to what you do.
- Breaks are preventative. When I first started A Year of Productivity, I only took breaks after I felt tired, fatigued, or exhausted. I think when you’re fatigued or tired, it’s usually too late to salvage your productivity, but breaks prevent you from becoming fatigued and exhausted in the first place.
Breaks prevent you from becoming fatigued and tired, and they help you slow down, step back from your work, reflect, and come up with better ideas. If you want to get more work done, taking more breaks is a no-brainer.
That said – mojitos, anyone?