Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Take a Break!

I'm on vacation this week.  Okay... so I wrote a blog this week but, overall... I had a lot of downtime, visiting with friends, swimming in the lake, hosting a pig roast... minimal work.  We all recognise the value of a vacation and, indeed, seem to build our lives around the opportunity  for our next big break.  However, the same arguments that could be applied to why taking a vacation every year is so valuable to our health and well being could apply to the need to take regular breaks throughout our workday.

We live in a world that rewards and celebrates 'busyness' like it is a commodity in and of itself.  We wake up to an alarm and race from one activity to another until we collapse in our beds preparing ourselves to do it all again tomorrow.  Think back over your typical work day though and ask yourself where the periods for recovery and renewal were, if at all. 

Technology has helped us to engage more fully, but it has also served to prevent us from being able to disengage  We are always available, always connected.  However, being constantly on and focused brings with it a cost.  In fact, research shows us that our ability to be fully engaged at work depends in good part with our ability to periodically 'disengage' successfully.  It seems that building moments of recovery into your work day ensures that you are able to engage in tasks more fully and passionately.  Even though you may be breaking more frequently than those working flat out, building in periods of renewal over the course of the day typically increases overall productivity.  You may spend less time on tasks but you are more fully present in the time you do spend, thereby getting more done, in less time, while retaining your health and well-being.

Just like any muscle in our body, our energy capacity decreases with both over or under use.  Therefore, we need to balance any energy expenditure with time for energy renewal.  Pushing through tasks, moving immediately from one task to another, leaves little time for recovery.  However, our energy stores are not limitless and, as we deplete them, it requires more energy to maintain the desired level of output.

How often are breaks ultimately needed?  Although it was long known and understood that Circadian rhythms, which work on the cycle of 24 hours, dictated our activity and rest patterns, in the 1970's it was determined that these rhythms were actually broken down into smaller/shorter cycles of 90-120 minutes - which operate throughout the day.  These are known as our Ultradian rhythms. It is these rhythms that account for the rise and fall of our energy throughout the course of our day.  Although our focus, energy and alertness may be high at the beginning of each of these cycles, by the end they are low.  Despite our efforts to continue to persevere and concentrate, our systems go into a marked decline.

Our body will attempt to communicate the need for a break by yawning, stretching, losing focus, hunger pangs, etc.  Although our response is to typically override these signals, we would do well to listen to them instead.  These are the perfect moments to  integrate in a period of renewal, a small break that helps you to recharge and refocus.  These breaks don't need to be long in order to be effective.  Einstein himself was a strong advocate for the benefit of catnaps.

Suggestions for possible renewal activities might include...
  • plugging in your ipod and listening to a favourite song or two

  • read a chapter from a fictional book or a magazine article for interest sake alone

  • watch a short video on the internet that is of interest (my favourite of course is where you can even key in the number of minutes you have available and it will find a TED talk in that length for you)

  • close your eyes and 'nap' for five minutes

  • meditate

  • do some deep breathing exercises

  • do some body stretches

  • take a walk

  • drop by someone's work area and touch base with them quickly

  • file or tidy something (only time it gets done for me!)

  • do a self-neck massage

It doesn't matter the activity, as long as it offers a chance to recharge, renew and refocus.  With so many demands to juggle and so much on our plates clamouriing for our attention, learning to manage our energy, such that we are able to accomplish more in less time, is an asset beyond measure.  Who knew that working smarter meant breaking more often? 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll recover from the stress of writing this article by taking a nap for a minute or two!

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