Why taking a break will improve your productivity at work

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Maybe some of you wondered why Manic Mondays was silent last week… Well, I was taking a break after writing my PhD thesis and this got me thinking about the difficult balance between productivity at work and personal time.

In academia we usually work on projects with a strong time pressure for many reasons, from the possibility to get scooped by competitors to the need of complying to deadline from funding agencies or conferences. All the steps of our career are strictly time-bound, as we have to prove ourselves productive if we want to get our degree, fellowships or positions. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to put a whole lot of work in our project to be sure we’ll actually get where we want to, as the intrinsic “trial and error” structure of science is very unpredictable and driven by serendipity. Still, the immense hard work to build solid basis for our research should be better recognised and rewarded, but this is probably a topic for a different article.

The discrepancy between the rapid pace of evaluation we are subjected to and the slow progress of experimental projects can lead to the development of stress-related mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, as discussed in several Nature editorials. Many factors contribute to build up the unhealthy stress, but today I would like to focus on the deprivation from holidays and personal time as one of the factors that negatively impact on our productivity and happiness at work.

Photo by @kalenemsley on Unsplash

I know way too many PhD students, and researchers in general, who do not take any holidays for long stretches of time, work long hours and every weekend. The worst part is that many supervisors and professors expect these working rhythms and do not understand that it could actually be counterproductive for the project, since it will take much longer to recover from a burnout than plan some time off along the way.

Also, it’s important to debunk the myth that to be a good scientist you need to spend all your time in the lab and do nothing else. Of course, there are experimental protocols that require working long hours and during the weekends, and times when it’s important to dedicate more effort to the project, but this level of pressure is not sustainable for very long periods of time and it should not be considered the norm - or worse, an indication of dedication.

Being more focused for less hours can be much more productive and rewarding than working many hours.

After concentrating for a while the brain needs a break and both focus and productivity drop. What happens if you keep working nonstop is that the task needs longer to be completed, with a net effect of a waste of time.

Another consequence of never taking a break is feeling overwhelmed, with not enough energy to deal with everyday setbacks or unforeseen events. This also reduces empathy and negatively affects our relationships and connection with others. If you overwork and not rest enough, the day after you will be tired and need more time to finish the same task, or you will make mistakes that will need to be fixed with extra time and effort, leading to being more tired and having less time to rest. And repeat.

We need to break the cycle but there is no recipe that works for everyone, so you will have to develop a strategy that works for you.

It doesn’t need to be a long holiday to recharge, which often can be accompanied by the anxiety of stopping our project and therefore our career, convincing us that it is never a good time to take off. Every day we need to find some time for ourselves, take short breaks to boost creativity and productivity, doing something different to keep the energy flowing and not get sucked into a spiral of stress and overwork.

Here some good reasons to take a break:

1. Having something to look forward to

During intense periods of work, when there is no time for anything else it can be difficult to stay focussed and motivated. That’s why it can be helpful to have something exciting scheduled afterwards, like a holiday or a weekend away, a nice afternoon with friends or doing something you like.

2. Reward yourself for an accomplishment

We already talked about the importance of celebrating our wins, and taking a holiday, the time to do something different like dedicating time to your favourite hobby, or simply having a slice of cake after completing a task, can be a great strategy to motivate you to finish on time and enjoy your reward.

3. Recharge

Who doesn’t need a boost of energy from time to time? It can be a coffee with a coworker between experiments, a lunch break in a restaurant instead than the canteen of the institute, reading a nice book in the evenings or leaving town for a while. Just find your own way to refill your energy levels and you will work even better!

4. Get a fresh perspective

It happens sometimes when feeling stuck, to be unable to write that paragraph of the thesis or to find an explanation for those results, and staring at your computer or obsessing about it is not going to solve the problem. The best way to deal with it is to take a break, go for a walk, sleep on it, put our brain to work on something else, so when going back to the original problem you can see it with new eyes and find a better solution.

What 3 action steps can you take to reward yourself more often and keep your cup full on a daily basis?

Let me know in the comment section!

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