Monday, October 20, 2014

Work better by taking breaks

Writing for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson describes A Formula for Perfect Productivity: Work for 52 Minutes, Break for 17. Perhaps you find yourself getting distracted while writing a document, or responding to email. These tasks often require us to think, to exercise decision-making. And doing so can be hard work.

Thompson writes, "Many of us have a cultural image of industriousness that includes first-in-last-out workers, all-nighters, and marathon work sessions. Indeed, there are many perfectly productive people that go to the office early, leave late, and never seem to stop working. But the truth about productivity for the rest of us is that more hours doesn't mean better work. Rather, like a runner starting to flag after a few miles, our ability to perform tasks has diminishing returns over time. We need breaks strategically served between our work sessions."

Some of you may recognize this as a variation on the Pomodoro technique, which I first heard about in a software development context. Pomodoro requires breaking a task into manageable "chunks." Set a kitchen timer, typically for 25 minutes, and use that dedicated time to work on the next chunk.

The formula referred to in Thompson's article says "the highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer."

Just as occasional vacations are necessary to renew our energy, to bring new focus and fresh perspectives, you also need to take regular breaks throughout the day. Take a walk, or look out your window. Do something that isn't in front of a computer. Use this moment as an opportunity for play, to distract yourself from the immediacy of what's in front of you. When you return to your desk, you will be better prepared.
photo: David Svensson

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