Your car has parts that perform specific tasks. The radiator cools the engine. The spark plugs ignite the gas. The intake manifold distributes air and gas evenly to the cylinders. We think of a car this way because a car is a machine.
For most of the 20th century, scientists mapped the brain in the same way. They named parts and defined the function. Broca's area controls language. The amygdala runs fear. The neocortex houses higher thought.
This machine paradigm for the brain is a model of Industrial Age productivity. We’re no longer living and working in the Industrial Age—not by a long-shot—but we're still operating in ways developed to suit that period's needs, not those of our own. And despite major advances in brain science, many of us still cling to this outdated idea of productivity, often without fully realizing it. And at a cognitive level, it’s holding us back.
In the Industrial Age, managers were managing bodies. Bodies, they found, could be driven to work for 8, 10, even 12 hours. Quality and efficiency would suffer a little but not too much. In a factory it was important to keep the line moving. Managers wanted to limit downtime as much as possible to keep production numbers up.
The brain doesn't work like a machine, though. You can’t turn it on, run it for 12 hours, then turn it off. It's true that a body at rest is a body not producing—not being efficient or effective. Because bodies need to rest, too, manufacturers established shift work, ensuring a regular supply of working bodies. But a brain that isn’t allowed to rest is a brain overwhelmed, filled with waste, uncreative. And in the knowledge economy, working constantly seems efficient only when you think of the brain like a machine.
In many ways, our brains are like five-year-old children, capable of great bouts of energy and learning and creativity but then needing to nap, to be entertained, to run around and get out their ya-yas.
Today’s leaders and managers must recognize that in the modern knowledge economy, they’re no longer managing bodies but managing brains. So how do you do that well?
In the 1980s, the Japanese school system was revered for producing excellent students. It was assumed the children were forced to work harder and longer than in other countries. But studies revealed something counterintuitive. While Japanese students had longer school days, they took far more breaks, one every 40-50 minutes. They spent a full 25% of their day on break. And yet they outperformed American students who were having recess cut.
In a similar finding, researchers Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz have discovered that high performers don’t operate at 100% for long periods of time. Instead, their energy oscillates from high to low and back again.
The lesson here is pretty simple. Try and get your team into a rhythm: 40-50 minutes "on" followed by 10-15 minutes "off."
Another interesting finding from the Japanese schools study was that break time was completely unstructured. The children were left to do whatever they wanted. So when your team takes a break, they should likewise take that time away from the structure of work.
If you take a break from your main work project only to start on a smaller work project, you aren’t giving your brain the space it needs to operate at its highest capacity when it returns to the hard stuff.
When taking breaks, encourage your teams to read a book, watch YouTube clips, call their friends or family, take a walk or a nap, play cards or backgammon, build their bacon-making robot, whatever—anything that’s not actually work.
We don’t mean lie down on the floor of your office. We mean get outside and find a patch of grass. Take off your shoes or sit down, or be bold and lie all the way down and stretch out.
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Study and Public Health found that being in physical contact with the ground activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This means our body floods with acetylcholine, the calming, swinging-on-a-hammock-by-the-beach hormone. This brings us down from our work, clears our brain, and gets us ready for the next round of productivity.
Whatever you do, try and back away from that eight- or nine- (or more) hour workday punctuated (maybe) by a lunch break. What works for bodies on the assembly line doesn't help brains in the office.