How to Take Productive Breaks

How to take productive breaks

How to take breaks at work

A wise mentor I had a while back used to ask me seemingly simple questions that had deep meanings. I often felt like Grasshopper sitting with Master Po in the TV series Kung Fu (minus manipulating a set of chopsticks to catch a fly)…

This one time, I remember rattling on about how busy I was – working long hours at home and on weekends. My mentor let me jabber on and on, and when I finally paused for a breath, he looked at me and said:

“Bob (it would have been cool if he had said “Grasshopper…”), what is more important: effort or results?”

Thinking that I had to be busy all the time, I replied: “Well both are. In order to get results, I have to be busy and work hard.”

My mentor asked: “Do you have to be busy to get results?”

Then like Master Po, he walked away and left me standing there in a puddle of frustration.

Here are the insights I eventually gleaned from this important moment:

Take a Break

It took me a long time (I’m obviously a slow learner) to figure “it” out. “It” being the fact that sometimes we have to slow down, to walk away or stop what we are doing in order to get things done better and faster. The physical space that is created when we walk away from a tough problem or complex task allows us to actually think. It’s not that we weren’t thinking before. The issue is that high levels of frustration, stress or pressure impede our ability to think through the issue thoroughly. So productive breaks can actually help us solve problems more quickly.

Take Time to Think

You might discover that you find better ways of doing things when you are standing in the shower, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, at the gym, or sadly even lying awake at 3:00 in the morning. It’s because you’re giving yourself the space to think freely. For that very reason, I keep a white board pen in the shower stall and keep a notebook with me everywhere so I can capture the idea or solution and keep the creative flow going.

Even people who are WAY more organised, methodical and detail oriented than I am can benefit from walking away from problems, challenges or whatever it is that’s slowing them down. I guarantee that the separation or the break will foster a clearer frame of mind and yield better results.

Planning Leads to Productivity

When I finally realised that getting things done sometimes required me to step away from the challenge and go for a walk, it actually made me more productive. The ‘space’ that is created for my brain to actually think through the task and plan out the best approach makes me WAY more productive. And… It almost always takes less time to accomplish the task that had frustrated me, leaving me with more time on my hands.

Effort vs. Results

Abraham Lincoln said it best in his quote:

“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would sharpen my axe for six.”

Now when I see my adult kids or young protégés in the office working ridiculously long hours and attempting to come up with complicated solutions to really simple problems, I will play Master Po to them and ask the question about effort versus results.

Exercise: Next time you come across a seemingly intractable problem at work or in life, take a step back and give yourself the rest of the day to place focus elsewhere. Be sure to check back in the next day and see how this space has allowed you to rethink the issue.

By Robert Murray

This article was originally published on Live in the Grey

Live in the Grey

Live in the Grey challenges the work / life divide by encouraging the blend of personal passions with professional pursuits. We offer resources, experiences and insights to help people pursue fulfilling careers.