Take a Break to Improve Your Effectiveness
You are working in a high profile project. Your team has been working long hours for several months, including a good number of weekends, and doing a great job. Vacations have been put off until the project is done (another six months, if things go well). The project is on schedule and budget. Remaining activities are to finish the development work, perform quality assurance and roll out the product to its users.
The phone rings and it’s your project sponsor. There has been a change at the highest levels; some political issues coupled with a new project that is in the wings and needs to be expedited makes it necessary for you to get done in three months instead of six.
What do you say?
- Yes sir
- Are you nuts? No way.
- Let me take a look at the options and I’ll get back to you
- Nothing. You hang up on her and cry.
Clearly, your best choice is 3. You are smart and experienced. You know that a change like this needs some clear thinking and some quality time to do it.
What do you do next?
- Polish your resume and call your favorite recruiter
- Take some time to relax, meditate and/or work out
- Assemble your team and give them the news
- Immediately review and begin changing the plan
The Best Answer – Take a Break
Here, the best answer is 2. Take a break. This is counter intuitive to most people but it is the right thing to do because you need a clear and relaxed mind to address the situation in the most effective way. Stressing about it and trying to figure it out in the shortest amount of time is counterproductive.
The Effect of Rest and Recovery on Productivity
“Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.” Tony Schwartz, February 9, 2013 in the NY Times
Relax! You’ll Be More Productive. Let go of the attempt to figure out complex problems (after a reasonable amount of effort) and solutions will emerge.
It is widely accepted, though less widely practiced, that rest and recovery is necessary to allow the body and mind to integrate the effects of exercise and to rejuvenate after an exercise or wor work session. Pushing through fatigue, whether using aids like caffein and sugar or just raw will power may work in the short term, but the results are an increase in fatigue and a reduction in productivity and performance.
For project managers, and knowledge workers of any kind, mental acuity and the productivity it brings to creativity and decision making are critical to success. Rest and recovery increase mental acuity.
In addition, problem solving, planning, designing and other creative tasks are best done while relaxed and open, as opposed to exclusively focused on intellectual and analytical effort. Breakthroughs often occur in the shower or on a walk in the country while not thinking about the problem in a left brain, linear and analytical way. Letting go and letting the often untapped right brain, intuitive and holistic mental functions operate leads to AHA moments. AHA moments lead to creative solutions and effective decisions.
we can divide breaks into long, intermediate and mini categories. The long term break is a day or more off. The intermediate break is an hour or more. The mini break can be as short as five or ten minutes.
All three are important and all three have similar benefits – rest, relaxation and recovery from intensive work and mental clarity.
Vacations and retreats are periods when you get out of the work mindset and let the mind refocus and the body rejuvenate.
Lunch hours and breaks are as important as longer breaks. Get away from your desk and take a walk or run, meditate, do some yoga or other exercise, take care of personal errands, take a nap or sit under a shady tree. The distance these breaks provide from focused thinking and working changes your perspective. Physical exercise, a nap and some healthy food renew your energy.
The mini break is a quick stepping back from intensive work. Every hour to hour and a half make it a point to stop, get up, move around and relax. Just a few minutes will give you the moment you need to refocus, relax and go back to work refreshed and with a more effective perspective on what you are doing and how you are doing it.
If you meditation into your breaks, they will be even more powerful. Meditation is a mental exercise that cultivates a calm mind, results in physical health benefits, enhances concentration and cultivates the ability to objectively observe what is occurring in and around the meditator’s mind. Focusing on the breath or another mental object while letting go of any thoughts that might arise is a technique that is a powerful addition to anyone’s personal productivity tool box.
Stepping Back and Being in Flow
Breaks provide rest and recovery which enhances energy. Of at least equal importance is the stepping back to change your perspective.
There is great power in getting totally focused on a task, getting lost in it, being in flow or in the zone and experiencing what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”1
As long as you are in flow and your flow is taking you in the right direction, there is no need to step back. But flow is not sustainable for very much longer than an hour or two. After a while, fatigue sets in and the concentration required to sustain the flow experience is lost. When this happens, the time is right for a break. Instead, many people push on and end up working less efficiently, often finding that they have to rework what ever they have accomplished during that forced march period.
Consciously step back. Review what you have accomplished. See it in the context of the bigger picture of the project as a whole. Clear your mind. Refresh your body and then, when you are ready take on the next task or continue the one you took a break from.
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1 Geirland, John (1996). “Go With The Flow“. Wired magazine, September, Issue 4.09