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You feel stressed and exhausted when you hammer away at your keyboard all day, and the evidence is everywhere. A study earlier this year from the University of Toronto on lunch break patterns of office workers revealed the absence of a proper lunch break can actually lower productivity. John Trougakos, associate professor of Organizational Behavior & HR Management, who coauthored the study, argues our brains have a limited pool of psychological energy.
"All efforts to control behavior, to perform and to focus draw on that pool of psychological energy. Once that energy source is depleted, we become less effective at everything that we do," he says.
Recently, the Draugiem Group, a social networking company, added to this growing body of research. Using the time-tracking productivity app DeskTime, they conducted an experiment to see what habits set their most productive employees apart. What they found was that the 10% of employees with the highest productivity surprisingly didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. In fact, they didn’t even work full eight-hour days. What they did do was take regular breaks. Specifically, they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.
"Turns out, the secret to retaining the highest level of productivity over the span of a workday is not working longer—but working smarter with frequent breaks," wrote Julia Gifford in The Muse when she posted the study’s results. Employees with the highest levels of productivity worked for 52 minutes with intense purpose, then rested up, allowing their brains time to rejuvenate and prepare for the next work period.
The Draugiem Group’s study highlights what researchers have been saying for years—that our brains simply weren’t built to focus for eight-full hours a day. "The best way to refresh your focus is to step away and take a break," says productivity expert Cathy Sexton, who says the results of The Draugiem Group’s study aren’t surprising.
What was particularly surprising about the study’s results, however, was what the most productive individuals did during their breaks. "Those 17 minutes were spent completely away from the computer—not checking email, not on YouTube" says Gifford. Taking a walk, chatting with co-workers (not about work), or relaxing reading a book were some common activities the most productive employees did while on break.
While many of us often feel the need to look like we’re working hard and putting in long hours at our desks, Gifford says the study shows managers the importance of ensuring employees know it’s okasy to step away without fear of appearing lazy or unproductive.
Follow these tips to ensure you’re getting enough breaks in your day:
Schedule breaks into your daily calendar. Ideally every 52 minutes.
Set a timer to remind you when to take your break and when to return to work.
Make realistic to-do lists. "We often bog down our to-do lists and make them not feasible for us to accomplish [plus] we underestimate how long it’s going to take us to do something," says Sexton.
Prioritize tasks. Choose three major tasks to focus on for the day and add other tasks as they pop up throughout the day to a separate list, readjusting your priorities throughout the day if required. It’s a lot easier to look at a list of three tasks than 30. Once you knock off the first three items, choose your next three priorities from your lengthier list.