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Downtime and Breaks

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Downtime and Breaks

Let’s talk about one of the most under-appreciated aspects of productivity – downtime and taking breaks.

It is counterintuitive that the time you spend being unproductive actually has a huge impact on the time that you spend being productive. Most modern knowledge workers (and bosses and managers) shudder at the very thought of giving their team members time off, not realizing how crucial that time off actually is.

Everything in life is a cycle – there are upswings, and there are downswings. There will always be certain times during the day when you’re bright and alert, and others when you’re completely unproductive and really need to just zone out for a rest period.

With a bit of planning and preparation, you can time those unproductive times to fall in line with the downtime and breaks you should be taking, and make the most of their effects.

Quick Summary

  • We’ll be interchanging the terms “breaks” and “downtime” throughout this article. They essentially mean the same thing.
  • Why take breaks? If you’re not, you’re crippling your productivity.
  • It’s important to learn how to schedule downtime and breaks across different timeframes: hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually and across multiple years.

Why Take Breaks and Downtime?

The simple reason is this: taking breaks and downtime makes you more productive when you are working.

If you’ve never tried to take time off before (without worrying about work, responsibilities or what you’re concentrating on), be prepared to be amazed.

Try it now: take a break from the screen, go walk around for 5 minutes and then come back.

Taking breaks counterintuitively helps you focus. The only way to maintain consistent focus over long periods of time (barring the use of pharmaceuticals), is to schedule regular breaks into those periods of focus.

There is an oft-referred-to story about Henry Ford and how after running thousands of studies on worker productivity, concluded that the average assembly line worker was not productive over 40 hours a week. He recognized that working over 40 hours a week resulted in mistakes, assembly errors and accidents (net effect = lower productivity). For the modern knowledge worker, this is more around the 35 hours a week mark. Ford, a man who was all about productivity and efficiency, recognized the power of time off and how scheduling it in and enforcing it actually increased output and results.

There have been numerous scientific studies done on the efficacy of taking breaks in an office environment and they pretty much all say the same thing: take breaks, they’re good for you.

Why Plan Breaks?

Some people feel like they don’t need to plan or structure their breaks – they live in a quasi-college zone of breaks and downtime at random days and times, mostly “when they feel like it” (which is actually most of the time).

If you’re one of those people who makes that work for you – more power to you – but we would say that the majority of the population needs a bit of structure to help them focus when they need to and to take downtime when it’s required. This helps you stay focused on hitting your big goals with concentrated effort.

Job/Hourly Breaks

Taking Breaks Hourly

The smallest rational timeframe in which you can take a break would be while engaged in or concentrated effort.

We’ve talked countless time about the Pomodoro Technique, which suggests a 25 minutes work/5 minutes break split, or our recommended 50 minutes work/10 minutes break split.

If you’re on top of your to do list and are setting better outcomes, then you’ll naturally set tasks that fall in the 20-30 minute or 50-60 minute range, and take breaks as you finish one task and move onto the next.

Let’s get specific.

If you work in an office environment, here’s what taking a break looks like:
Every hour or so, you get up, walk to the kitchen, grab some water/coffee, hang around for 4-5 minutes, then return to your work.

Or, you go for a short breath of air outside.

Or, you go to the washroom and splash some water on your face.

The key is, you get up and away from your screen and desk.

A lot of people think that “taking a break” means that they can log onto Facebook or surf the web. Or that they should pull out their smartphone and start browsing Instagram in the kitchen. That is not taking a break – that is simply being unproductive.

You want to mentally disconnect from what you’re working on and come back fresh.

If you work from home, we suggest physically getting up from your where you are working, going to another room and lying down for your break.

Some people worry that by taking a break, they’ll lose focus of where they are at. There’s a simple mental strategy for that:

  1. Visualize everything you’re working on – as a series of slides, images or whatever works for you.
  2. Visualize a box.
  3. Put all the things in the box.
  4. Close the lid to the box (mentally).
  5. When you come back from your break, re-open the box and take everything out.

If that seems a little too metaphysical for you, you can always write down 4-5 main bullet points on a post-it note before you go on break too.

Daily Breaks

Taking Breaks Daily

If we zoom out one level, we discover that every day has a rhythm to it – times when you’re in the zone and getting things done, times when you’re sleeping, and times when you’re struggling to compose a simple email. We’ve written a bit about what our rhythms and schedules look like before, but let’s break it down a bit more.

What would we consider break times on a daily basis?

Basically, anything that requires concentration is “uptime”, or “on” time. So say you get home after a day of work and start doing online research for that vacation you’re planning – that takes concentration, and it’s not really “downtime” so to speak.

During your average day, there are certain breaks you can plan. They are:

  1. Transit time, if you walk or take public transit. Walking is surprisingly therapeutic, and if you’re on public transit for an extended period it’s a good time to zone out to music or people watching.
  2. Eating times. Thanh and I are currently running experiments on this, but basically you want to give your mind a rest during meal times. This means less television and reading, and more enjoying your food (mindful eating).
  3. Nap times. You don’t need to schedule in naps for every single day, but you should be roughly aware what time your energy levels dip and when you’ll likely need one. Very simply, take naps on the days you feel you need them, and keep them under 20 minutes.
  4. Sleep times. You should have set times for going to sleep and waking up. More in our product on Better Sleep.

Weekly Breaks

Taking Breaks Weekly
At the next level up we have rhythms of uptime and downtime on a weekly basis.

Most of society revolves around a 5-days-on-2-days-off schedule (you can thank Henry Ford for that), but with personal computers, smartphones and always-on Internet, it seems that we are all working more and more on weekends.

We strongly recommend that you take at least 1 day off per week. And by “a day off”, we mean that you should plan to not work on that day. Sure, sometimes emergencies happen, but they should be exceptions to the rule.

What are some good things to do on your day off?

Well, whatever you want (except work). Some ideas:

The point of a day off is to disconnect from what you do the other 6 days a week.

Monthly/Quarterly Breaks

Taking Breaks Monthly

These two timeframes are grouped together, because the need for breaks across the 30-90 days timeframe varies from individual to individual.

If you’re properly taking weekly breaks (1 day off), then you likely won’t need regularly scheduled monthly breaks. If you’re not, you’ll find yourself more inclined to take say 3 days off every 30 days. Some people (especially always-on entrepreneurs), will need to force themselves to take this time off once every quarter.

Whether you’re taking this downtime once a month or once a quarter, it’s recommended that you make it a few days away from your normal residence. There’s no need to leave the country (or state, or even city), but go stay somewhere else for a few days – don’t take your laptop, and resist the temptation to check work emails on your phone.

What you do there is largely up to you, but remember that you’re there to rest, meaning that activities that vary from your day-to-day are recommended.

Annual Breaks

Taking Breaks Annually

At the next timeframe up we have the traditional annual break, which most people take anyway – usually around Christmas/New Year time.

Ideally, you want to disconnect from your normal vocation for at least 7 days. In fact, if you want a productive year ahead, taking this once-a-year-extended-downtime is essential. You’ll come back refreshed and ready to take on another year of focused productivity.

You’ve likely spotted the theme by now: do what you want on your downtime, but make sure that it’s 1) not the same as what you normally do day-to-day, and 2) lean more towards the side of relaxing.

Multi-Year Breaks

Taking Breaks Multi-Year

At the longest timeframe is the idea of mini-retirements or multi-year breaks, which have been gaining in popularity since Tim Ferriss published The 4 hour Work Week (review).

To be frank, we haven’t seen that many people who successfully pull off this kind of lifestyle and still maintain an above-average standard of living, but they do exist.

The most common scenario is the entrepreneur who works hard for 5-10 years, sells their company, then takes 1-2 years off to just relax, then eventually gets bored and starts a new company.

Next Actions

  • Take breaks, they’re good for you.

If you liked this post, you may like our premium product Better Sleep – it’s about how to get a better night’s rest, every night. Check it out here.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brad November 17, 2012 at 4:30PM

Really great stuff here, Aaron… as counter-intuitive as it may feel, I know I need to get better at working in breaks, especially strategic multiple day ones that are beyond just the daily short 15 minuters…

For a few years now, I feel like I’ve gone through a long stretch of grinding my gears and spinning my wheels, which has made taking off time hard to fathom – as I’ve minimized my belongings and monthly output, I can see my organized, planned, strategic breaks on the horizon… I’ll be back to re-read and plan further once it’s more of a reality.

All the best to you and yours.

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