There was a time when football coaches were more likely to continue to push their athletes through grueling late-summer practices with little or no breaks, and in extreme cases, no water, for the sake of making the athletes “tougher”. Then came an intersection of science and reality. Scientific research suggested that rest and water would actually enhance performance, while many kids deprived of rest and water in hot conditions suffered incidents of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and even death. At this intersection, things changed, and the old-school practice of making kids tougher via depravity fell by the wayside. Not only were coaches who gave athletes adequate breaks and hydration safeguarding their players, they were also enhancing performance. No brainer. Win-win.

This may seem a dramatic metaphor, but a similar phenomenon seems to exist in many workplaces in our country.  Whether imposed by a supervisor, imposed by peer-pressure, or self-imposed, many employees will work an entire workday with little or no breaks. Thank goodness for AC. You won’t die of heat stroke, but your work performance and mood is probably suffering nevertheless.

I recently got to listen to researcher and New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink (Drive, When) speak at a conference. Among other things Mr. Pink talked about was the latest research regarding the transformative power of a good break.

I won’t go too deep into the science in this article, but rather skip to the conclusions of the research:

  • Breaks in work (of any kind) enhance both mood and performance.
  • Working without breaks results in decreased performance, mood, and a significant increase in work errors.
    • In industries where lives are at stake, such as the healthcare industry, consequences can be disastrous.
    • In school settings, standardized test scores decrease in the afternoon, but studies show a good break before afternoon testing can normalize this statistic.

So what is a good break? According to Mr. Pink, here are the rules for a good break:

  • Something beats nothing.
    • A one-minute break is better than no break.  A five-minute break is even better. Don’t say you don’t have time to take a break. Your performance may depend on it.
  • Moving beats stationary. Get out of that chair. Move some blood. It’s good for your muscles, joints, and brain.
  • Social beats solo. Grab your coworker and take a walk.
  • Outside beats inside. Duh.
  • Fully detached beats semi-detached. 
    • So you’ve followed the rules stated above and gone out for a walk with your office buddy. Now try not to talk about work–you’ll work better after the break is over if you don’t.
    • Leave your phone behind.  It’s ok, it will be there when you get back.

P.S. I almost never write a blog post in the afternoon. In fact, I seldom do anything creative in the afternoon. It’s not my wheelhouse. But I took an outside walk break at 2:30 today, came back in and started writing. Cristin even noticed, “You’re writing a blog post in the middle of the afternoon?”

This stuff works. It’s scientifically based. And it’s easy to do. If your office culture isn’t break-friendly or accepting, please feel free to share this article. It could literally change your work culture via better moods, higher performance, and less mistakes. Who isn’t for that combination?

If you want to learn more about maximizing work performance, the rhythm of your day, and the power of breaks, check out Daniel Pink’s newest book When, The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. I think you’ll find it interesting and informative.

Be well!


One thought on “Gimme a Break

  1. Great suggestions! I’m going to beg to differ with Mr. Pink on “Social beats solo” though. If you’re an introvert and a lot of your work involves dealing with people, a solo break can be way more rejuvenating!

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