The Importance of Taking Breaks

A counterintuitive tip that saved my productivity.
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The Importance of Taking Breaks2

A few weeks ago, I had back-to-back calls all day-long with a seemingly endless pile-up of emails to respond to when a friend texted me, "Lunch later?" I'd felt overwhelmed since I'd hopped on the computer at eight that morning, but for some reason I agreed (I assumed it simply meant I'd work extra late that night). Up until I left the office at noon, I worked even harder to get as much of my to-do list crossed-off as possible so that I was able to enjoy stepping out. And when I returned a little over an hour later, I was amazed at how refreshed I felt, and ready to jump back into my list. I finished way more than I would have, had I not taken a break. 

At my first two corporate jobs, taking a break was not part of the company culture. You could obviously grab lunch if you needed one, but for the most part, people sat slumped over their desks, working as they ate. For years, the habit from my first jobs stayed with me—even when I started working for myself and had the power to make my own hours. I thought that leaving my house—or even standing up to walk around the room, in some cases—would break my writing stride, and that my work would suffer. But it turns out: The opposite is true. Breaks actually help productivity.

The day after my lunch date, I Googled the science behind taking breaks, and article upon article confirmed my theory that planning things on over-booked days actually helps you. It puts the pressure on to be more productive and get everything in order beforehand and, rather than distracting you, the diversion can actually provide you with renewed energy. One study confirmed, "Even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods."

Of course, a long lunch break isn't always possible, but we've started implementing breaks in little ways around our office. Before editorial meetings, our team now takes a fifteen-minute walk around the block. Some days, I pause from whatever I'm working on to read a non-work-related article and have a snack at my desk. Last week, Leslie took a meditation app to our balcony and ate her lunch while listening to it for thirty minutes, and our graphic designer took herself out to lunch at a nearby restaurant (rather than retrieve food to bring back to the office). If I know it's going to be a particularly busy day, I'll sometimes even schedule an early dinner with a friend knowing that it will force me to get everything done by that stopping point.

And this goes beyond the office. When I became a mom, the single most frequent piece of advice I received was, "Nap when the baby's napping." As soon as I had Sloan, this tip felt insane—the time she spent napping was when I'd be cleaning her mess, washing bottles, and getting my own life in order, but now I try to be strategic about finding balance. On the weekend, if nothing absolutely has to get done, I'll start cleaning and maybe put in a load of laundry, but then I'll sit down with a magazine until she's ready to get up. Everything that had to get done, did—and reading for thirty minutes with a magazine didn't change that. It's such a simple concept, but it's amazing how a fifteen-minute break can change your perspective—and even the course of your week.