Find Out How to Accomplish More by Working Less
By Michelle Alfandari
Founder & Chief Navigator, retimement
What if I told you that there’s a no-cost, high-return benefit that can make you and your employees more productive, creative, and innovative?
The answer is surprisingly simple: Schedule breaks throughout the day to daydream, mind-wander, take a walk, browse the web, or listen to music. These types of pauses provide a daily antidote to burnout and disengagement, as well as the opportunity to recharge and experience your own “aha” moments—those instances when a great idea suddenly pops into your mind, or the solution to that problem that’s been stumping you makes an unsolicited appearance. Optimal performance requires short regular breaks, as well as longer intervals of downtime (a.k.a., vacation).
This isn’t a case of wishful thinking—there is a rich body of scientific evidence to support the assertion. Two books that immediately come to mind are The Sweet Spot, How to Find your Groove at Home and Work by Christine Carter, Ph.D., and Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D., and Christopher Vaughan.
In the former, Carter provides a formula for “how to increase our productivity at the same time we take more breaks and play a whole lot…Taking recess is actually a way to increase our brain power. It is about giving ourselves a break from overwork, but it is also about converting stress into productive and creative energy.” Brown and Vaughan do a deep dive into the importance of play: “Remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person … Play provides freedom from time.”
In today’s world, busy-ness has become a badge of honor—a symbol of our success and importance (“people need me”)— we’ve become so consumed by the idea of being “always on” that we’ve forgotten how to have fun. We integrate our work into our downtime to such an extent that we lose the benefits that come from taking real breaks.
During a recent coaching session, one of my clients—a successful senior executive with a large multinational company—told me about the ski vacation he’d just taken with family and friends. Throughout the trip, all of the adults were constantly integrating work into their downtime by texting, emailing, and making business-related calls, and my client felt that if he failed to do the same, he’d risk being seen as unimportant and unsuccessful. Despite the fact that he is highly regarded by his peers and boss, he felt the pressure to demonstrate his busy-ness instead of relaxing with loved ones and engaging in an activity that he enjoys (skiing). Instead of faking busy, what if he’d taken pride in the very management and leadership skills that had allowed him the ability to have the time off in the first place?
Shifting From “Always On” To “All In”
Being constantly busy does not make us more productive, nor does it mean that we are successful. It does, however, signify that we are not optimizing our potential at work—or in the rest of our lives. In most cases, being “on” all the time makes us under-perform, disengage, and burn out, whereas allowing more time for “fun” makes us happier and more successful.
If you have any lingering doubts about the importance of breaks and vacations, I recommend that you read “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain,” a New York Times article penned by Daniel J. Levitin. “Taking breaks is biologically restorative,” writes Levitin. “Naps are even better. In several studies, a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue. If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations—true vacations without work—and to set aside time for naps and contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving some of the world’s big problems. And to be happier and well rested while we’re doing it.”
Downtime gives you a competitive advantage. If you’re losing momentum or market share, or if your team is performing but not excelling, you can produce measurable changes in performance by instituting breaks throughout the workday and mandating vacations.
Skeptical? Consider this: Four years ago, Hubspot, an inbound marketing company, began offering its employees unlimited vacation time, and mandated that they take at least two weeks off per year. Since instituting this policy, Hubspot’s revenues have nearly quintupled, to $77.6 million. (“Overwhelmed America: Why Don’t We Use Our Earned Leave?” U.S. Travel Association/Travel Effect, August 2014.) The question is not whether you can afford to mandate vacation time—it’s whether you can afford NOT to.
Let’s make downtime as essential to our well-being as sleeping and eating. Let’s give our brains the room they need to recharge by taking multiple daily breaks and scheduled vacations. Instead of being “always on, let’s learn how to “turn off” and define our success by our productivity, by being “all-in”, the ability to fully engage in work and play, each in its own window of time.
This idea may seem radical to some, but it’s been around for quite a while. Ever heard the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? Well that phrase dates all the way back to 1659, proving that there is nothing new about the value of downtime. It’s about time™ to recognize that we all need some time off.