Want to be more productive at work? Give yourself a break! Here’s why it’s worth trying
When your to-do list is a mile long, your inbox is overflowing, and your head is spinning, stepping away from your desk for a little while seems unreasonable at best, impossible at worst. But research shows that many activities typically deemed pointless can actually encourage productivity. After studying more than 11,000 CEOs and business owners, productivity expert and New York Times-bestselling author Jason Jennings found one thing they all had in commong: an affinity for taking breaks.
"Our research found that the most successful leaders take frequent breaks throughout the workday," Jennings says. From listening to music to taking a walk around the block, read on for nine ways that you too can "waste" time effectively.
"After you sit for an extended period of time, about two-thirds of your blood settles below your waistline," Jennings says. "You need to get up and move around every so often to get the blood flowing back to your brain so you can concentrate." Movement also relaxes tense muscles and reduces anxiety, so a brisk walk around the block or in your backyard can improve your mood by the time you get back to your desk, says Cathy Sexton, a productivity strategist and coach.
Another bonus? That problem or question you've been trying to figure out may very well solve itself as soon as you stop focusing on it. "Taking a walk doesn't mean forgetting about the work at hand," Jennings says. "Many of my biggest ‘eureka' moments—a book title, op-ed essay idea, or speech opener—have occurred while I'm doing something else, not just sitting at my desk and concentrating on the problem."
While walking over to a coworker’s desk may take longer than simply hitting "send," there are real benefits to speaking to a colleague in person. "When you interact in person, you can see each other's facial expressions. This makes it easier to communicate and collaborate, which in turn may help you solve the problem more quickly," Sexton says.
Jennings agrees. "Many companies are banning CC's and BCC's on emails or designating one day a week when emails aren't allowed in order to boost interpersonal communication and create a spirit of collegiality and cooperation in the workplace."
If it's kosher in your office environment, try walking over and talking to a coworker face-to-face the next time you have a question. You may find you'll get the answer you need much faster.
Tuning in to Pandora or making a playlist on Spotify isn't a distraction from your work at hand; it may actually help you overcome a major lack of motivation. "Music affects each of us differently, but there is a correlation in how it can be utilized to drive a particular energy goal you have in mind," says Don DuRousseau, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies how music affects the nervous system.
Up-tempo music in particular (around 150 to 200 BPM—check BPMs at songbpm.com) can activate our nervous system, turning on alertness networks and boosting motivation. If you're feeling blah, play a song you really love that exhilarates you, then follow it up with a few more that give you a similar upbeat feeling. "With music, we can find the focus we need to drive our alertness, mood, and motivation," DuRousseau says.
If you're feeling bogged down, spend a few minutes mindlessly clicking through your favorite websites—even social media—for a beneficial break. "Surfing the web isn't necessarily a mind-numbing activity. In fact, I've never browsed online without learning something new, so it can truly be a productive break from work," Jennings says.
Studies also show that allowing employees to access social media sites during the day can boost efficiency by up to 10 percent. "Especially if you're an extroverted person, viewing people's status updates and Tweets can provide a boost of energy, similar to an in-person social interaction," Sexton says. Just be sure to limit yourself to about 10 minutes of browsing to avoid falling down the Internet rabbit hole.
Listing three or five things you appreciate in your life right now is an effective exercise for boosting motivation, says David Allen, productivity expert and author of Getting Things Done. "Energy follows thought, so whatever you're thinking about, your emotions should follow your thinking. So when you think about positive or inspirational things, your energy levels will rise accordingly," he says.
Making this list will also help you feel better overall, Sexton adds. "This is one of the most important things we can do to create a positive mindset and improve our motivation. When we are grateful for what we have, it creates a total mind shift for the better," she says. Even when things seem really bad, you can usually find something to appreciate, whether it's finding a good parking spot or simply enjoying the sunshine.
A brief snooze may help boost energy and improve your focus even better than an afternoon trip to Starbucks. "Twenty or 25 minutes is the best time to give someone enough sleep to feel better without going into deep sleep, which can make people groggy," says Dr. Michael Breus, Ph.D., sleep expert and author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan.
Not comfortable closing your eyes at work? Head outside to catch some rays instead. "Sunshine stimulates a region of the brain that stops the production of melatonin, so brief exposure to bright light can prevent you from feeling tired," Breus says.
Getting organized is a proven way to get back on track when you're feeling unproductive. "As I always say, when in doubt, clean out a drawer," Allen says. An organized workspace can help renew your focus, so taking 10 or 15 minutes to clean off your desk is more than worth it. If you're at home, you can do any similar relatively mindless task, like vacuuming, doing dishes, or watering your plants. Plus, since these are things you're going to do anyway, you're really not wasting time at all.
In fact, a clean desk is another shared trait that Jennings noticed during his work with 11,000 successful CEOs. "Each of their offices shared one commonality: a clear desk with hardly anything on the surface. They realize there's no need to show your importance with piles of papers and an overflowing inbox," he says.
Taking five minutes to simply jot down what's on your mind at the end of the day offers two primary benefits: First, even your mind has a maximum storage capacity so it's important to empty your thoughts (especially the things you want to remember) onto paper now and again. "The head is for having—not holding—ideas, so you need to get your thoughts out of your head in order to see the whole map of projects you have to do," Allen says.
Second, by clearing your mind of worries before going to sleep, you will likely fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly, Sexton says. This in turn will give you more energy and more focus to tackle the tasks you've written down the next day.
You may be in a rush to get out of the office at 5p.m., but don't leave without writing down a to-do list for the next day. "Research suggests that 15 minutes of planning ahead can give you up to an hour back the next day," Sexton says. You're already in work mode at the end of the day, so by making a list of what you need to accomplish the next day, you won't have to re-think anything in the morning. It's a simple way to give yourself a headstart on your to-do list. This is especially helpful on Mondays, after you've been away for a couple of days, and will definitely boost your productivity in the long run, Sexton says.