Being more successful than other people is often a matter of finding ways to squeeze more productive time out of your day than other people can.
But studies have shown that taking a break — actually letting your downtime be downtime — actually helps you get more done in the long run.
I’m sure you’ve heard it before. And maybe you think it’s easier said than done.
But the busier you are, the more you actually need quiet time in order to be more productive and successful. When your schedule is jammed from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed, you are missing out on an important part of the productivity process.
Our brains can’t reach the height of their potential without rest. Yes, you can always keep going, but you won’t be able to do your best work. You won’t truly move ahead — you’ll just be running (exhausted) in place.
When you’re always focused on the next thing, there’s no room for surprises
You know how great ideas often come to you when you’re in the shower or washing the dishes? It is no coincidence.
When our minds can unhook from the day’s events — the running to-do list, the moment-to-moment schedule — they can go new and unexpected places. And when your mind can go somewhere new, that is when really good ideas can happen.
If you’re always running from one thing to the next, there is no opportunity for your brain to relax and make connections. The unpredictable connections that a rested mind makes are what set truly creative, successful people apart from everyone else who’s just running around “getting things done”.
You may think you’re building up your strength and endurance when you never take a break, but you’re actually missing a crucial part of the equation.
It’s all about resilience
When you’re working out in the gym, it’s great to be consistent and try to go beyond what you did the day before. But if you push yourself to the limit every single day, we all know what will happen: you’ll get injured.
The same things is true of your mind.
So many of us don’t give ourselves a break, ever, and it adds up.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review:
“Research has found that there is a direct correlation between lack of recovery and increased incidence of health and safety problems. And lack of recovery — whether by disrupting sleep with thoughts of work or having continuous cognitive arousal by watching our phones — is costing our companies $62 billion a year (that’s billion, not million) in lost productivity.”
Even if you leave the office at 5:00, if you spend all night checking your email and trying to solve problems for the next day, then you’re not really giving your mind a break.
Yes, you might be working long hours that other people find impressive. But you’re probably not doing good, creative, meaningful work for all of those hours.
You could make a bigger impact if you worked less, and made more of the hours that you were focused on work.
Learning how to take a break
Our culture that says, in a million different ways, that being busy means you’re successful and that working long hours is a sign of being productive and important. After a lifetime of learning that lesson from TV, school, managers, and your parents, it can be really hard to actually know how to stop and take a break.
You might actually feel a physical resistance to it. It’s just like any new skill: at first it is hard.
Before you start simply trying to force yourself to relax and take a break, ask yourself some questions. What soothes your mind? What brings it to stillness and calm?
For some people, it might be working out. For others, it’s reading or doing a hobby like gardening. For some, it’s actually just sitting still in a quiet room.
It will be different for everyone. Only you know what truly calms and quiets your mind. If you don’t make space for the stuff that truly helps your mind restore itself, you will just keep depleting your energy and ability to come back amazing tomorrow.
This winter, where I live, it has rained so much. I’ve been sick a lot, and the grey, stormy days really affect my mood and productivity. I’ve had to give in to the fact that I am much less productive than I am used to being; this means slowing down my mornings and actually taking sick time when I am sick.
Of course, I do what I can to keep making progress. I plan out my weeks, I make the most of small moments throughout the day to get details done, and I set goals that I can achieve on my biggest priorities.
But I am also giving myself more of a break. Because otherwise, every day is harder than the last. My resilience is a little low right now, so I’m doing what I can to build it back up: keep working, and then rest. Keep working, and then rest.
How to decide whether to be productive or take a break
If you’re a really busy person, it almost never feels like a “good time” to take a break for yourself.
It is always going to be a judgment call; if you wait for free time to appear in front of you, you’ll never get the break that you need.
So how do you know when is a good time to take a break, and when should you just plow ahead?
Knowing you should take a break is one thing. Actually knowing how to take a break that will recharge and refresh you is another thing.
I bet you’ve experienced this: you’re working really hard towards a goal, and you start feeling burnt out. So you tell yourself to take a break and recharge. Only, you spend all of your break time stressing about the project or even checking your email.
Eventually you say, “yeah, this isn’t working” and you get back to work. The break did nothing to recharge your mind, and in fact, now you feel like you lost precious time that you could have been getting things done.
If this happens to you, then you might be struggling to pick the right times to be productive or take a break.
Here are some tips for making smarter use of rest time:
- Schedule your downtime. Busy people need to schedule their downtime, just like any other important task. Look at your schedule for this week. Where is it possible for you to take some time for yourself?And just as important: where are the times that you will *want* to take some time for yourself? If you know you’ll have a crazy day on Thursday where you just can’t slow down, don’t try to force downtime on that day. Just take some the next day, after you go all out the day before.
- Break your downtime into smaller chunks. Too many of us think that we have to be as successful at taking breaks as we are at our work! You don’t have to do an hour of meditation to get the benefits of a break.Instead of blocking of 30 or 60 minutes for downtime, which may just be unrealistic for your schedule sometimes, try finding just 10 or 15 minutes throughout the day (maybe between meetings, or during lunch) where you can just sit quietly. Try to go outside, ignore your phone, and just sit still for a few minutes each day.
- Downtime doesn’t have to be passive. For busy people, the idea of kicking back and meditating or watching some TV sounds painful. But resting your mind doesn’t have to mean completely shutting it off. Doing a yoga class, going for a hike, doing household chores, or drawing in a sketchbook are all things that allow your mind to relax, restore, and make new connections.
- Be honest about how you’re feeling about your work. If you know you’ll spend a break worrying about a deadline or email from your boss, then it’s probably not valuable to invest in taking a break and you should just keep working.But be truthful about how real that worry should be — how likely is it that if you took a 5 minute walk you would *really* get in trouble? If you’re sure it wouldn’t be valuable, skip the break. But be realistic, and take small moments to relax where you can. They are more plentiful than you might think.