A Balanced Day: Routines and Breaks are Good For You

Maximizing your productivity is not about working as hard as you can for as long as you can. Balancing both your dedication to work routine and your ability to take breaks are crucial for quality results, thoughtful breakthroughs, and maintaining mental well-being. Incorporating routine into your workday—think of it as a way of automating your approach to your efforts, to minimize effort—can pay big dividends. Conversely, knowing when to step out of the flow to regroup and recharge can also give a big bump to your effectiveness. Read on for some tips and tricks on how routines and breaks can boost your productivity.

It has been shown that adopting routines can make you more productive. In any job (or any typical day, for that matter), there are tasks you need to perform over and over again. A successful work routine might include meeting with your colleagues every Thursday morning for a status update, or writing up extensive reports on a biweekly basis. The very repetitiveness of some of these types of projects can allow you to be more effective—if you have a plan to manage repetitive work, you don’t have to put as much effort into how to structure it. You can also make your routines more efficient by keeping templates, checklists, and reminders at the ready—all tools that help you streamline your endeavors.

Routine can also help harness your creativity. Many creatives swear by routines: author Stephen King famously sits down at the same time every morning, which he believes allows his writing to “kick on.” He’s trained his brain to associate writing with the placement of the items on his desk, his glass of water, and time at which he enters that environment. Routine is a hallmark of many big thinkers: Charles Darwin enjoyed a lie-down and cigarette at 3:00 pm every day; Mr. Rogers took a regular afternoon nap; and Maya Angelou rented a hotel room in which she wrote every day, while geniuses like Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein liked to wear the same thing every day in order to not expend mental energy on wardrobe decisions.  

Make Routines Work for You

While you can certainly change your outfit as often as you like, a more considered approach to becoming routine-oriented can help you to be more productive. Schedule daily tasks to stay on track. Book regular brainstorming sessions with colleagues. You can also adopt a set of steps for every time you want to harness your focus at your desk. And while routine is how you boost your productivity, remember that you can individualize it to your needs.

  • Mix Things Up
    Your focus is fine, but you’re feeling a little isolated? Take your laptop outside, to a café, or to a shared workspace to be around others.
  • Time It Differently
    Want to maintain your weekly brainstorming sessions, but you feel like your team’s inspiration is waning? Schedule these meetings for earlier or later in the day, or as a working lunch if you all could use a blood sugar boost.
  • Even small changes can boost your creativity and productivity simply by shifting around a few details. The downside to being routine-focused is when you confuse it with inflexibility.  

Gimme a Break

Routine is a hallmark of efficiency. That’s why researchers believe that another routine you should consider is building regular breaks into your workday. Taking breaks can also improve both your productivity and creativity. In fact, not talking them can make you less productive. According to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, concentration is like any other sort of sustained effort—you can only toil away for so long before you become fatigued and reap diminishing returns.   

Taking a break isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Even with multiple studies touting the effectiveness of workday breaks, people report that they have trouble taking them (or they take them, but feel bad about it). According to a Staples study of office workers and managers, more than 25 percent of people who spend eight hours or more at work don’t take a break other than lunch. Another study found that just one in five employees even take a lunch break. You already know that you simply cannot work at top speed for the entire day. You need to step away and recharge at regular intervals in order to deliver thoughtful, quality work. How to best recharge is different for everyone—you may need to take a walk, while someone else really gets their reboot from a cup of coffee and a few minutes of small talk. In a perfect workplace scenario, employees would feel comfortable taking cognitive recharge breaks when they need them, and managers would facilitate those breaks. In the real workplace, it’s up to you to be aware of when you’re lagging and take care of yourself.

How Often to Break

Concentration and productivity levels are different for everyone, which is why you should take time to figure out how and when you work best. Try charting your ultradian cycles to see when you experience your peak productivity times, and harness those times so that you can work smarter rather than just longer.

If you’re in the zone, don’t stop for a break if you don’t feel like you need it. But you should keep tabs on how you’re doing. If you begin to feel that your focus is waning, or if you catch yourself daydreaming, it’s time to recharge. The whole idea behind taking a break is to avoid the diminishing return of working when you’ve run out of gas.

Breaking Bad

While breaks are necessary and good, be aware that you can abuse your breaks. Don’t let your “15-minute internet surfing refresher” turn into a last season’s Game of Thrones episode binge-fest. Keep one eye on the clock. Better yet, get up and move away from your computer, if that’s where you’ve been putting in all your time. Go for a walk or hit the gym, if you can make the time. If nothing else, enlist a co-worker to take a quick stroll with you to grab a coffee or do a brisk walking lap around the building. Let your break be an actual break, where your mind wanders and you do not think about work at all. Studies show that problem-solving is often easiest when your brain is diffuse thinking.”

Diffuse thinking happens when your conscious mind is relaxed and you begin to make connections in a seemingly random fashion. That’s why, in theory, workplace startups have ping pong tables and other forms of recreational, non-focused activities on hand. Apart of from providing fun, a game of ping-pong allows you to stop working on a problem and lets your brain to go into diffuse thinking mode. Taking a work break can be the thing that allows you to work better.

Get the Bigger Picture

Another great reason to take regular breaks: goal reactivation. Cognition, a 2011 study showed that by working continuously on a task, you run the risk of losing sight of your objective. Even a 15-minute break allows you a sort of “reset.” When you come back to your task, you must reorient yourself to your goal, which helps you to see the project in a more holistic fashion. When you do that, you are more likely to catch mistakes.   

A regular routine in tandem with systematic breaks is the energy management tool that will let you get the most out of your workday.

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