For coaches it can be easy to spot clients who could achieve more if they would work a bit less. But clients may resist the suggestion that grinding away at an unrelenting pace actually undercuts their ability to perform as highly effective professionals.
Our culture tends to value long hours at the office, so much so that most Americans don’t take all their accrued vacation days and potential lunch hours. Even thinking about slowing the pace or restructuring their schedules makes some professionals feel more anxious and guilty.
Are you tempted by the suggestion that more time off could translate to a higher rate of success? But do you feel reluctant to test the principle because it sounds too good to be true? Well, don’t just take my word for it – read some of the vast research suggesting that the most productive pace includes brief periods of intense concentration, separated by frequent periods of relaxation.
You might start your reading with The Breakout Principle, Dr. Herbert Benson’s 2003 book describing how periods of renewal can trigger your body’s natural mechanism to maximize health, mental ability and physical performance. Benson says that a mind/body “breakout” can occur when you employ any number of strategies “to sever completely your previous train of thoughts and emotions.”
For example, in the course of a normal workday, you can trigger a revitalizing “breakout” by taking time for meditation or prayer, art or music, physical activity, or even moments with nature or a pet. When a breakout allows you to entirely shift your focus, you can enhance your mental processes, reduce stress, and jump-start creativity and performance.
A more recent and comprehensive book is The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, by Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy. The authors muster substantial research suggesting that long continuous hours of work tend not to lead to superior achievement.
The authors say that highly effective performers tend to move between periods of intense activity and renewal. On the other hand, those who try to engage in unrelenting activity tend to lose their capacity to focus, reflect and innovate. And the “relentless urgency that characterizes most corporate cultures undermines creativity, quality, engagement, thoughtful deliberation, and, ultimately performance.”
Are you now convinced that occasionally pausing might be a good strategy, but you don’t know how to start? A helpful approach is to explore a wide range of options, from mini breaks to substantial vacations:
- Honor the 90-minute rule. There is evidence that 90 minutes is about as long as most of us can maintain intense concentration. When we keep plugging away, our performance tends to degrade after the first hour and a half. If you have an important project, schedule a 90-minute block when you can focus deeply, with as little interruption as possible. After that, take a quick walk before you return to the task or think about shifting gears.
- Breathe. Throughout the day, indulge in tiny breaks by taking a few deep breaths. Make the experience even more relaxing by repeating a simple but meaningful phrase in your head, in rhythm to your breathing. For example, if you’re anxious about an event or project, say to yourself, “calm and confident.”
- Work out. Exercise is a terrific way to stimulate a “breakout,” followed by a higher level of performance. If you cannot get to the gym, create the habit of frequent short walks.
- Take a lunch break. Research shows that people who put their tasks aside and take off 30 minutes for lunch get more done than similar colleagues who remain stuck at their desks.
- Plan holidays. Even if you don’t have the time or money to take your dream vacation, you are more likely to be successful at work if you adopt the practice of taking regular holidays. This could mean scheduling some long weekends or other scattered days off. Or it could simply involve changing your normal weekend routine to include activities you find relaxing, like getting a massage or meeting friends for a special dinner.
Bev and Andy, and Connie and John, enjoying a break on the Costa Brava:
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