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How to work at peak productivity–and know when to take a break

Being able to create a schedule that maximizes productivity, as well as being able to identify when you’re losing steam and knowing how to disconnect in a way that actually helps you recharge, is the key to doing your best work.

How to work at peak productivity–and know when to take a break
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Being productive all the time is impossible. No matter how much effort you put in and how much endurance you have, you’ll eventually get worn down.

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This is one of the key reasons why flexible work enables 78% of employees to be more productive. Those of you with flexible hours can work when you’re most efficient and have more freedom to stop and take breaks when needed.

But it only works if it’s executed properly.

It depends on being able to create a schedule that maximizes productivity, as well as being able to identify when you’re losing steam and knowing how to disconnect in a way that actually helps you recharge. Here are some pointers:

Schedule flow time

A good general rule of thumb is blocking out one-to-two-hour chunks of time in your calendar for uninterrupted work, so you can fully focus and reach your peak productivity. I like to call this “flow time” because it allows you to get into your creative flow. But you have to stay committed to getting into the rhythm; during that dedicated time, it’s critical to ignore any distractions or desires to stop working.

Try Timeboxing

Another useful productivity hack is timeboxing, which means allocating a pre-determined amount of time to finish a given activity. Timeboxing encourages you to find more efficient ways to finish tasks or at least finish in a reasonable amount of time. It also keeps you accountable, as you can use your calendar to track the activity and send a notification when it should be complete. Timeboxing was ranked as the top productivity strategy in a recent study published in Harvard Business Review.

Know when to disconnect

Scheduling strategies can only go so far. You should also be optimizing your productivity in real time by recognizing when you need to take a break and resume later when you can be more effective. There are obvious signs to look for, such as struggling to focus or finish basic tasks, or if you’re making a lot of little mistakes. To be clear, struggling to focus only justifies a break if you’re struggling to focus continually, despite your best efforts. If you’re simply distracted by a few things or slow at reading a boring, verbose email, you likely just need to suck it up, focus harder, and continue working.

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You may also consider taking a break when you’re feeling agitated or stressed. These feelings not only harm productivity but can also translate into irritability toward coworkers, even for remote workers. Try to take the break before you become irritable.

It’s often smart to take a break when you feel tired, even if you’re perfectly well-rested. This can generally be alleviated with physical activity, even if it’s just a walk around the block. If, on the other hand, you’re experiencing the symptoms because you’re not well-rested, you’re dooming yourself to failure and you better start sleeping more.

Another indicator you might need a break is if your eyes are hurting. This likely means you’ve been looking at a computer screen for too long, and that can develop into a headache. Needless to say, this is a good time to take a break from your phone too.

Regardless of how you’re feeling, you should take a quick break every 90 minutes or two hours. Science has shown that this is when humans naturally degenerate from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue, and that quick 15-minute break helps the brain better consolidate and retain information.

Know how to disconnect

The most important thing about your break is that you completely detach from work. Calling into meetings during your lunch or checking email on your walk won’t provide the mental rejuvenation that makes a break valuable. Beyond that, everybody should spend their breaks doing whatever they individually need to get the most refreshed and return to work at peak performance–but there are a few activities that tend to be particularly beneficial.

Exercising: There’s plenty of research proving that cardiovascular exercise is a tremendous boost for our mental functioning. It causes our brains to release chemicals that fight stress (endorphins) as well as a protein, known as a brain-derived neurotrophic factor, that improves mental cognition and memory and is often described as a mental reset switch, making exercise the ultimate way to disconnect from work.

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Stretching: A great supplement to exercise, or a quick and easy alternative for those who aren’t able to exercise or don’t want to break a sweat. Stretching improves our flexibility and posture and helps reduce and prevent back and neck pain, which is perfect, since sitting at work for hours on end wreaks havoc on the natural curvature of the spine. Stretching also increases blood flow and provides stress relief, especially when done mindfully such as through yoga.

Healthy snacking: Healthy snacks enable us to stay sharp throughout the day and avoid the sugary, carb-heavy snacks that cause us to crash. Snacks that are rich in nutrients and fiber like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provide sustained energy, while high-protein snacks like nuts and legumes provide amino acids that boost our concentration and alertness.

Whether it’s scheduling flow time, timeboxing, or making time to disconnect, make sure you’re consistent so you can get your body and mind into a daily rhythm. Flexible work continues surging, with 63% of employers now reporting that they have some remote workers. But as Eleanor Roosevelt said, with freedom comes responsibility–and managing your own schedule and ensuring you’re as productive as possible is no small responsibility.

Paul Gentile is a senior director of Product Marketing at LogMeIn, where he supports GoToMeeting within the company’s Unified Communications & Collaboration portfolio.

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