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The Restful Workday: Staying Productive by Taking Breaks

Daily work is often fast-paced, and demand for employee’s time and attention is high. In this environment, rest and rejuvenation are often deprioritized, causing engagement, attention, and productivity to suffer.

The “No Rest” Myth

Common to US work culture, there is a long-standing myth that asserts that the harder we work, the greater our success. Relatedly, most of us have heard phrases like, “rest is for the weak” and “success comes to those who work the hardest.” Unfortunately, these messages have led to greater adherence to long work hours and lack of rest, a model that is unsustainable and likely comes at the expense of our personal well-being. Contrary to popular belief, the need for ‘rest’ isn’t a malfunction, but an inherent part of being human. Countless authors and researchers now advise that rest is a key contributor to sustained success and long-term productivity. While acknowledging this idea can be relatively easy, supporting it through consistent daily practice can be much harder. Moreover, creating moments for rest during a busy workday filled with extraneous responsibilities can feel next to impossible. The good news is that restful practices can be implemented into your day with a bit of intentional planning and creativity. These positive energy rituals - highly specific routines for managing energy - are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance. [1]

Strategies To Implement Rest Throughout Your Workday

To effectively make your workday more restful, we’ve identified three key moments where rest practices can be introduced to better manage energy expenditure, productivity, focus, and mental clarity. These moments correlate with the beginning, middle, and end of a traditional workday in a holistic approach meant to create balance and sustainability for better engagement and personal well-being. Aligned with each of these moments, we’ve provided several practical methods for introducing restful habits into the workday. When considering adding rest into your own workday, it’s important to tailor these recommendations to custom fit your style, bandwidth, and interests. Your needs may look different throughout the day, and maybe different to others.

 

Beginning

  • Set your intentions - How you enter your workday matters, setting the tone for the way your body and mind feel and perform the rest of the day. Do you wake up late, rush to get ready, and jump in first thing to work tasks? This may be causing you to feel distracted, unprepared, and behind in your work. Instead, try building in rest before your day begins by allotting 15-30 minutes to set intentional priorities and goals for the coming day. Give yourself the space and time to align to your top priorities and do something grounding (meditation, stretches, a contemplative walk, etc.) - as a result, you’ll likely feel more engaged and energized to dive into your work!

 

Middle

  • Break up your work - Over the span of a thirty- to forty-year career, performance is optimized by scheduling work into 90- to 120-minute periods of intensive effort followed by shorter periods of recovery and renewal. [1] Where possible, design your work schedule with 5-15 minutes breaks in-between longer, focused work blocks to recover and renew. During these intentional breaks, stop what you are doing, step away from your desk, move your body, drink some water and take some deep breaths. Give yourself an opportunity to transition away from the obligations and ‘to-do’s’ back into the present moment before kicking off another focused block of work.
  • Build in automatic meeting breaks -  Rather than constantly running from one meeting to another without interruptions, add intentional breaks before and after your meetings to wrap up thoughts, jot down ‘to-do’s’, and transition before your next meeting. You can easily implement this practice in your calendar tool by updating the default on your meeting invites to start 5 minutes later and end 5 minutes earlier. In a recent study by Microsoft, it was concluded that employees who didn’t take breaks between meetings showed far higher levels of stress and lower engagement than their counterparts who did take breaks. Stay engaged and reduce stress by implementing breaks between meetings!
  • Implement ‘walking meetings’ - Do you need to be sitting in front of your computer for this meeting? If not, take the meeting while walking outside - this simple practice can regulate your attention, boost your mood, spur innovation, and even improve your memory and information acquisition! [2] If you are unable to walk, simply spend this time outside, ideally in nature. According to Dr. Jo Barton, Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex, you can improve your self-esteem and your mood with just five minutes of exposure to nature. [2]

 

End

  • Create separation - At the close of your day, consider using your final few minutes to help transition out of ‘work mode’ and into the rest of your day - we recommend carving out 15-20 minutes each day dedicated to these activities. Use this time to update your ‘to-do’ list, identify the top 3-5 items to focus on in the next workday, and review your calendar to ensure your schedule is such that these can be accommodated (if it can’t, consider what changes are needed -- can someone else do this work or can something be shifted to give you the space to work on these priorities?). Once you feel like your workday has been effectively wrapped up, take 5 minutes to relax and prepare your mind for the rest of the day. Put on some soft music, turn down the lights or close your eyes, and sit quietly for a few minutes, focusing on your breathing. Too often, we find ourselves leaving the office and immediately diving into home responsibilities. Creating a pause before this transition will help your mind ‘clock out’ from work and allow you to be more present and engaged for the rest of your day.

Assess Your Own Rest Needs

If you aren’t convinced yet of the value of rest, consider how top athletes train and prepare for competition. It’s not by one relentless, singular training session that lasts weeks on end, but by a plan that incorporates focused bursts of work and intentional pauses for recovery; trainers and athletes recognize that pausing is essential for sustained, high-performance results. In the book The Passion Paradox, a comparison is made between the mindset of elite athletes to those in the workforce, with the authors arguing that deep focus with intentional breaks equates to major improvements. [3]

Paying attention to one’s own rest deficits is key if you are aiming for sustained productivity and long-term well-being. If you’re exhausted, you can’t do your best work—and if you’re not getting the right type of rest, you’re not going to be able to get past that exhaustion. [4] As you reflect on your own rest needs, consider all seven categories of rest: physical, mental, emotional, social, sensory, creative and spiritual. Ask yourself what type(s) of rest your body and mind most need right now. We recommend conducting a personal rest assessment and rating yourself in each category, in order to identify which categories of rest for you are most fulfilled and most depleted. Once you have identified your individual rest needs, you can better determine restful activities to incorporate in order to help you restore energy, feel renewed and experience your own ideal restful workday.

Considerations For Implementing Rest Within Teams

Beyond implementing restful practices for the individual, consider how these same techniques could be applied within your teams and across your organization. Leaders, how could you help your team commit to rest practices in order to help everyone be more productive (and dare, we say, happier?!). We encourage you to get your team and organization involved by making a collective agreement to implement some or all of the above strategies as a team. Then, plan to check in on the impact after a month. How did intentional rest impact productivity and well-being for your team? Where else could rest be implemented?

Implementing well-being practices into your organizational culture and work philosophy on a broader scale can be challenging - you don’t have to do it alone. At Sia Partners, we have a team of consultants who are regularly thinking about topics such as rest and wellness, to help our clients tackle the tough organizational health and effectiveness challenges we all are facing today. Get in touch if you are ready to incorporate a focus on employee well-being across your organization to drive long-term, positive impact.

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Sources

  1. Loehr, Jim and Tony Schwartz. The Power of Full Engagement. New York, The Free Press, 2003.
  2. Riegel, Deborah Grayson. “Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Walk.” 2 February, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/02/dont-underestimate-the-power-of-a-walk?utm_camp….
  3. Stulberg, Brad and Steve Magness. The Passion Paradox. New York, Rodale Books, 2019.
  4. DeBara, Deanna. “How To Leverage The 7 Types Of Rest To Be Your Happiest, Most Productive Self.” A Blog for Teams by Trello, 7 May, 2021. https://blog.trello.com/7-types-of-rest.