We live in a performance-driven society where people think it is bad to take a break. But they are wrong: Breaks are a sensible investment in your health and your ability to function efficiently. We need evenings, weekends and vacations to recuperate so that we can be productive again afterwards. We also need to take a number of micro breaks during the day, since our body and brain are not designed to work 8 to 10 hours at a time.
Our lives are shaped by contrasts and by poles that influence each other: Ebb and flow, north and south, magnetic forces that attract or repel each other, yin and yang, etc. Equally, you could say that there can be no stress without relaxation. In other words: We have to recover in order to function efficiently (one of my guiding principles, as my regular readers no doubt know…).
So why is that the case – and what does recovery actually mean? Recovery is a process during which our physical functions are restored to their original state. It is like a type of reset and, at the same time, the stress hormone cortisol is broken down. Afterwards, we regain our ability to absorb information and function efficiently. This means that we need to have alternating periods of activity and recovery.
No breaks mean no resilience
What happens if we don’t want to take a break? Our ability to think and concentrate decreases as the flow of blood to the central nervous system in the brain is reduced over time. We become uncreative and are no longer able to think clearly and logically, which may cause us to make rash decisions. We also react irrationally and perhaps even aggressively. In other words: We become less resilient if we don’t take a break.
For a while, a drop in performance can be compensated for by making more effort. But over the longer term, overwork leads to cardiovascular problems, an increased risk of injury, depression, burnout and other illnesses such as strokes – the risk of which increases by a third once a person starts working more than 55 hours per week. At the same time, productivity declines once this threshold is reached – so if you work more, you don’t get more done… you actually get less done!
Daydreaming increases your concentration
Free evenings, weekends and vacations are therefore a prerequisite to remain healthy and function efficiently over the long term. Studies show, for example, that people who hardly ever go on vacation are more likely to suffer a heart attack. Even just thinking about and planning future holidays does people good and helps them to relax. Other studies show that job satisfaction is higher if you take shorter or longer breaks from work every now and then. This includes periods of digital detox – since free time is not really free otherwise.
Allowing yourself periods away from work is also beneficial for the brain – enabling it to deal with the topics it wants to process and allowing creativity to develop. In addition, daydreaming promotes concentration and makes you less impulsive. To prevent yourself from thinking about work in the evening and at weekends, write down any open issues and tasks before going home. And make a note of what you have done well today – that will put you in a positive mood.
With the hectic pace of daily life and a full program of activities even during their free time, many people have forgotten how to tell what is good for them. Try to think about where and how you can best relax and incorporate this into your weekly routine. In the evening, it is advisable to do some exercise (sport or walking), as this reduces stress hormones and increases your circulation. That said, you should avoid following the same hectic pace during your free time and enjoy a few moments of leisure. You can find out how to do this here: LINK. And make sure you get enough sleep to rest and recuperate properly – you can find out more about this here: LINK and LINK.
Multiple short breaks are better than one long break
We always need to take longer breaks but short breaks are also important while working. Many people think they can’t take breaks during working hours in case they can’t complete all their tasks or are regarded as lazy. But they are wrong because our body functions according to the BRAC principle: ‘Basic Rest Activity Cycle’. Nathaniel Kleitmann, the father of sleep research, discovered that the brain goes through different phases of concentration during sleep and wakefulness. After a maximum of 90-100 minutes, we inevitably become tired and our attention and concentration are reduced.
This means that we need so-called ‘micro breaks’ (lasting between a few seconds and a few minutes) during the day in order to remain efficient from morning until night. These micro breaks are much more important than taking a long break, because recovery is greatest in the first few minutes. What form could these micro breaks take?
- Breathe deeply down to your stomach again and again. When we are under pressure, our breathing becomes more shallow and superficial, meaning less oxygen reaches our body (and thus also our brain). Deep breathing also helps to calm your central nervous system. It is best to take these deep breaths during a short walk in the fresh air or at an open window.
- Close your eyes and focus intensively on a pleasant moment in your life (e.g. holiday memories) or on your loved ones.
- Get up and get a cup of coffee in the kitchen or go to the toilet. Or walk up and down three or four steps. Exercise stimulates your circulation, including in the brain.
- Stand up and stretch properly. Studies have shown that five minutes of extensive stretching can replace up to an hour of sleep.
- Mobilize your spine by turning left and right. Or, even better (if possible at your workplace), lie on the floor, draw one arm over the other shoulder and place your knees in the other direction – and then switch sides.
- During periods of acute stress, try the shaking exercise: Stand up straight with your knees slightly bent and gently shake your head, arms, hands and legs, breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale while making an ‘S’ sound (3-4 minutes).
- Relax your eyes by focusing on a more distant object, e.g. the window, rather than staring at your computer. Alternatively, rub your palms together until they are warm and then cup your hands over your open eyes. The darkness helps them to relax.
- If your brain is too warm, your attention and memory get worse. Yawning can help in such cases by lowering the temperature of your brain.
- Massage your ears. This will give you an energy boost.
- Take a drink of water from time to time. A large part of the body is composed of water. And if you lose even just 2% of your body’s water (e.g. by sweating), this has a negative effect on your ability to concentrate – and 2% is not much…
- Use other senses from time to time, e.g. by smelling your coffee or tea or chewing your croissant slowly and consciously.
- Laugh, because laughter reduces stress, strengthens the immune system, lifts the mood and lowers blood pressure.
- Use your breaks to really recover, not to rapidly look at e-mails or check social media. And switch off possible sources of interference (e.g. telephone) during this time.
- Many people don’t even notice when they get tired and need a break because of all the pressure they are under. You should therefore plan your micro breaks in the morning (according to the BRAC principle explained above) – because if you take a break too late, the recovery impact is reduced. This is particularly the case if you don’t take a break until the evening, when you will simply collapse on the sofa and won’t recover properly.
- Change the type of work you do and include some routine tasks that are not too demanding in between.
- During ‘forced’ breaks, e.g. when stuck in traffic or travelling by train, please avoid getting irritated and don’t try to quickly do some work. Use this time to think in peace about certain things that you would otherwise never find time for.
You therefore need to be aware that people who keep going without regularly resting and recuperating are putting both their health and their career at risk over the long term. Plan your recovery time – it won’t just happen by itself!
© Claudia Kraaz