On the surface it sounds unlikely: taking breaks can make you more productive? But there’s quite a lot of evidence around now that suggests that working long hours isn’t quite as beneficial to business as we all think it is.
In the British workplace there’s a “jacket on the back of the chair” culture. A feeling that you must be seen to be working at all times, arriving early and finishing late. Eating sandwiches at your desk is the norm and clocking off at 5pm is seen as shirking. Emails get answered during evenings and weekends and switching off is discouraged.
When you run your own business, you’re the boss so you don’t have to work that way. And yet somehow the workaholic culture still gets to you and you worry that if you’re not putting in the hours then you’ll only have yourself to blame if anything goes wrong with your business.
But what if that isn’t actually the best way to make money? What if the reality is the opposite, and by pushing ourselves, and our staff, too hard we’re all getting less done?
The nose to the grindstone mentality comes from the factory production line. If you can make 300 widgets in an hour then that means if you put in an extra hour of work you’ll produce an extra 300 widgets. But this doesn’t translate to desk bound work, because we’re not robots and screwing something in place on a widget doesn’t take the same level of concentration as your average desk job.
The human brain can only function for a certain length of time before it needs a break. Sitting at a desk all day is counterproductive because you can’t possibly concentrate for all those hours in a row.
An article about this phenomenon made it into the New York Times earlier this year. Author Tony Schwartz argues that our brain works in cycles, which means we can only concentrate for 90 minutes at a time before we need a break.
He explains recent research, saying: “Professor K Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.”
Schwartz’s own staff work in offices with a “renewal room” where they can nap, meditate or relax. Regular breaks are encouraged, as is leaving the office for lunch.
You can encourage productivity even further by urging staff to focus on one thing at a time. The ability to multitask is overrated. It’s much better to do one thing at a time, whether that’s raising invoices or making client calls, as you’ll get into the swing of it and be able to work more rapidly than when you dip in and out of different tasks.
So why not give it a try in your own business? Your staff might not be top athletes, and you might need them to work for more than four and a half hours a day, but they’re not robots. Encourage them to take regular breaks and you may discover that they’re happier and more energetic, as well as being more productive. And, just as importantly, make sure you take regular breaks too.
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