“A field that has rested produces a bountiful crop.” –Ovid
I’ve shared a lot of research about how vacations are essential to keep you functioning optimally at work and home.
But even when busy leaders take enough vacation, they often cram way too many working hours into the days or weeks between their vacations—another practice that doesn’t fuel top performance in the long run.
The Big Idea—Vacations are vital for helping leaders sustain high-performance over time, but daily and weekly recovery routines are also essential. A restful vacation just isn’t enough to help people recover from regular 50+ hour weeks without adequate breaks during the day and week.
Skipping breaks doesn’t fuel top performance
In a prior workplace, we had what was called a “straight eight” shift. This meant there was no time allotted for a lunch break. You could simply eat quickly at your desk—and leave when your shift was over.
Being fresh out of graduate school and fueled by a steady stream of caffeine, I loved this at first. I’d power through the day and rarely leave my office.
Later, the 4-10 shift became very popular (working 10-hour days 4 days a week), but then it was 10-hour days without breaks.
As I climbed the promotional ladder, I was eager to impress people with the relentless pace I could keep, so I began putting in longer and longer hours—still with no breaks in the day.
Even in my personal life, I loved to cram every minute full of something productive.
Then I wondered why I felt completely shot by the end of the day—collapsing into a mindless agitated coma in front of the television.
And technology hasn’t helped us with this problem of filling every moment.
Think about this—when was the last time you were bored?
We have completely eliminated any pockets of boredom from the modern world and have yet to fully understand the consequences to the human brain.
Neuroscience suggests that we need these pockets of time throughout the day to consolidate our learning.
Rest breaks throughout our days or weeks shouldn’t signal laziness or lack of ambition. Instead, research shows us they are vital to sustaining high performance—especially over the long haul.
Here are a few of my favorite studies and articles on the importance of taking breaks throughout your day:
Taking a nature walk can boost your concentration by 20%. A 2008 study done by researchers at the University of Michigan showed that taking a walk in nature boosted concentration and memory. One group of students walked through a bustling city route, while another group took a stroll through a peaceful wooded area. After the walk, both groups were given a difficult backwards counting exercise. The group that took the nature walk outperformed the city group in concentration and memory by 20%.
90% of people say a lunch break boosts productivity. In a 2018 Forbes article entitled, Employee Engagement and the Long-Lost Lunch Break, 90% of survey participants said a lunch break (with healthy activities) increased productivity, well-being, job engagement, job commitment, and creativity. But only 20% of bosses believed that a lunch break was a good thing!
Employers often can’t tell the difference (in results) between those that work long hours and those that don’t. In this great article—You Probably Like Working Crazy Long Hours, But Here Is Why You Should Stop (CNBC 2018)—Data shows that employers often can’t tell the difference between someone that works 80 hours a week and someone that works a lot less. They can’t see what you are doing much of the time, they only see the result you produce. Studies convincingly show that longer hours usually lead to fuzzy thinking and more mistakes. Worse yet, you might miss out on the most important things in life.
After every 50 minutes of work, take a short break. An often-cited study conducted by the Draugiem Group, researchers used computer software to analyze the optimal work-rest ratio and found that 52 minutes working with a 17-minute break was ideal for productivity. If you want the simple version, just take a break for 10-15 minutes about every hour. Just make sure you do not fill these breaks shopping on the internet or checking social media—or your brain won’t actually rest.
Taking a regular weekly rest day could lengthen your life
Ray Johnston is the lead pastor of one of the largest churches in North America—Bayside Church—which has 18,000 people in regular attendance. Forbes magazine interviewed him a few years ago to find out if he could offer any tips to business leaders that wanted to grow their companies as fast as his church was growing.
One of the formulas Johnston frequently advocates for his congregation and his team members is…
- Divert daily.
- Withdraw weekly.
- Abandon annually.
This has apparently proven to be a great strategy for team and organizational success and sustainable growth.
Whether you share the faith perspective of the Bible or not, it is interesting to note that the practice of taking one day off per week (a Sabbath day) dates all the way back to the Ten Commandments.
But it’s not just a good spiritual habit, research supports this approach as well.
In the famous Blue Zone Studies conducted by National Geographic, researchers looked at communities around the world where people regularly lived past the age of 100, and they isolated contributing factors.
They only found five communities worldwide where people regularly lived this long.
One of the communities they identified was the 7th Day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California.
The residents there live about 10 years longer than the average American (average is age 79). One factor they identified was that Loma Linda residents practice a consistent Sabbath day—or one day of rest every week.
Only in the modern world would we need research to tell us what common sense already screams about rest. We need breaks during the day where we do nothing but space out, and we need to disengage at least once a week.
Our brains and our bodies don’t function well when we constantly run them at red line.
I love this quote by Tim Kreider, essayist and cartoonist for the New York Times:
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence, or a vice. It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body—and deprived of it, we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. Idleness is—paradoxically—necessary to getting any real work done.”
Resist the temptation to skip breaks and power through your days and weeks. Research plainly shows your memory and concentration will improve, you will produce a better work product, and heck—you might even live longer.
Turn information into action
- Take a 10-minute break every hour.
- Walk outside at least once during the day.
- Take a lunch break.
- Take one full day off per week from any type of work. Use this day to disconnect from technology.
- Make sure your breaks are actually restful for your brain. Don’t fill them with more technology. Kids especially need the gift of boredom, otherwise they become adults that cannot cope with it.
Have a great weekend!
*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.
- Blue Zones Research https://www.bluezones.com/2016/11/power-9/
- Tim Kreider—The ‘Busy’ Trap https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/
- You probably like working crazy long hours but here is why you should stop, com https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/03/elle-kaplan-how-to-work-less-and-be-more-successful.html
- The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature (university of Michigan) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x