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3 signs you need to take a break from work

More time working doesn’t mean you’re getting more done. Here’s how to know when you need to take a vacation—or even just an afternoon off.

3 signs you need to take a break from work
[Source images: NESA by Makers/Unsplash; memphisslim/iStock]
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Chances are, you don’t take enough time off work.

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Even before the pandemic, people stayed late at work and often did not use all of their allotted vacation days. And now, with a large number of people still working from home, the situation has gotten even worse. For one thing, there is no physical separation between work and life, so it can be hard to leave work behind. For another, there aren’t a lot of options for going away on vacation, and so people are opting to take days off without going away. But, that can lead people to get a little work in on their “staycation.”

More time working does not mean more productivity, though. At some point, you need a break—whether it is an afternoon away from work, or a week off. Here are a few warning signs that you ought to take a break:

1. You keep banging your head against the same wall

Many jobs require you to solve problems for which there are no ready answers. Indeed, any problem that has clear answers generally has an automated system that addresses it. So, your job is to develop novel solutions.

And—generally speaking—you succeed at finding a solution to the work problems you face. But, there are times when you run up against a problem that resists your best efforts. In those cases, there is a temptation to keep at it until it yields to your problem-solving prowess.

Often, though, when you continue to slog away at a problem, you just end up repeating the same set of potential solutions in a loop. If you really want a novel approach, you’re going to have to walk away. Often, the best thing you can do is to take a little time off work altogether. When you return, you’ll often find you have a new perspective on what you were working on.

2. You can’t shrug off the setbacks

One of the things that vacation does for you is to give you more resilience. For even the most successful people, work is two steps forward and one step back. The trick is to prevent those steps back from being so devastating that they prevent you from making any forward progress.

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There are two ways you might see your lack of resilience. One is your emotional reaction to bad news at work. Having your boss tell you a project needs to be redone usually leads to a moment’s frustration followed by work to improve your initial effort. Sometimes, though, negative feedback like that can sap all your motivation. That’s a good sign that you need to take some time away from work. You need to rebuild the reserves that allow you to move beyond criticism and get work done.

The other sign of a lack of resilience comes from your work with other people. Even the best colleagues can be annoying sometimes. They might go on too long asking a question, bother you for help with something they ought to be able to do themselves, or just say something mean. On your best days, you smile, wonder what is going on in their life today, and assume you’ll have a better interaction with them next time.

But, some days you just snap back. The problem with responding negatively to a bad interaction is that it often escalates the situation when de-escalation is the more effective strategy. Throwing gasoline on a work fire creates tension that doesn’t make anyone more productive. If you find that you’re consistently unable to turn the other cheek with your colleagues, it might just be time to take a break.

3. You’re doing too much fake work

Just because you’re near your desk doesn’t mean that you’re at your desk. There are many ways to look busy without accomplishing anything. You might browse the internet, doom-scroll news sites, or clean old files out of folders on your computer. Someone looking at you from the outside might think you’re hard at work.

My general term for this activity is “fake work.” It has the outward appearance of work, but isn’t productive.

A little fake work is fine. We all need a little mental downtime. But, when you haven’t taken a break in a long time—particularly if you have been working long hours for a number of weeks in a row—you will find that the number of hours you spend doing fake work starts to increase.

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At that point, you should take a real vacation from work. The problem with fake work is that it doesn’t relax you. You still feel as though you put in a full day, you just didn’t actually check anything off your to-do list. That adds additional stress. The best way to deal with a bout of fake work is to get away for a few days and return with a renewed sense of purpose.

Finally, even if you haven’t experienced any of these symptoms, it is still a good idea to find a sustainable number of hours to work each week and to make sure that you get some good time away each year to reconnect with other people and other facets of your life.