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The Almighty Break

October 2, 2008

This past weekend, I dragged my feet out of bed at 7 am on a Saturday morning to write a paper for a course in strategic management. And trust me – I must be pretty darn committed, because the only other thing that would drag me out of bed on a Saturday morning at 7 am would be to catch a flight to a remote and exotic vacation destination.

Nevertheless, I plowed steadily through the day. You see my strategy is simple: I stop every so often to give my brain a break. Sometimes though, these breaks lead to emails, the fridge, the TV or the phone. Before I know it, I’ve started five other things and forgotten why I took a break in the first place!

This got me thinking: the only way I can maintain focus for an extended period of time is to take breaks. But when do breaks provide the energy get the work done, and when do they lead to distractions that prevent you from getting the work done?

The breaking point

Mark Lorne, a manager at Grand and Toy, discusses the importance of taking breaks to improve people’s productivity. He writes that “working without breaks, skipping lunch or doing 12-hour days increases mistakes, decreases people’s ability to concentrate, lowers engagement in tasks and pushes workplace morale into the ground.” David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute agrees. He says,  “If you are really paying attention to learning something new, the time limit is 20 minutes before the brain says, ‘enough.’ ”

But as we all know, this doesn’t always happen in the real world. At work, I can’t  turn off my phone or ignore emails and I can’t not got to meetings. Moreover, for some people, trying to get 20 minutes solid of uninterrupted time is about as likely as meeting Ghandi. So how do you balance the need for a break, and get all your work done?

To break or not to break?

If you’ve ever been to a Tatham Boot Camp, you’ll remember that in Push Corporation, the whole production floor comes to a grinding halt when the workers take their break. As everyone waits impatiently for things to get back up and running, people lose focus and need extra time to get back on task. Ultimately, the customer suffers by not getting their product on time. But this doesn’t mean that to be an effective company, people must forgo breaks altogether.

Boot Camp shows us how a company can be transformed – from a bureaucratic company, bogged down with poor communications and broken processes – into a lean, efficient, cross-functional organization, where people know when to take breaks at appropriate times.

Part of the reason people get bogged down and distracted is because of the behaviours created by their work environment. Most cultures reward people for ‘dropping everything and running to the rescue’. This involves setting your job aside and trying to ‘fix whatever is broken’. The problem with this, is that it prevents people from doing the work the customer has paid for – and instead has them focused on fighting fires just get things running smoothly. Overall productivity decreases, morale sinks and customers lose patience.

As we learn over the two days in Boot Camp, by the time the company is transformed into e-Pull Corporation, work flows seamlessly and people have time to take a break. In this transformation, we have created a work environment that allow people eliminate the recurring problems (which is what creates the myriad distractions) and people are able to focus on doing their jobs.

By focusing on the task at hand, it takes less time, people are able to take more frequent breaks, and still have time to develop innovative and creative ideas for the organization.

Breakthrough performance

Of course, part of having the discipline to focus is being in an environment that is conducive to getting things done. However, the other part is bringing that same kind of discipline to our personal lives. People often get distracted because they are procrastinating. Most of us choose the path of least resistance: it’s much easier to putter around and do ‘busy work’ than it is to focus on the hard stuff.

In order to resist the temptation of losing focus, Tony Schwartz, president and founder of The Energy Project, believes that productivity is directly related managing energy, not time.

He writes: “The core problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy is a different story. To effectively re-energize their workforces, organizations need to shift their emphasis from getting more out of people to investing more in them, so they are motivated – and able -to bring more of themselves to work everyday. To recharge themselves, individuals need to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviours and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances they’re facing.”

The kinds of behaviours Schwartz is talking about is getting more sleep, exercising regularly, drinking less alcohol and taking a break to walk around during the day. Implementing these kinds of disciplined changes can have dramatic results both in a person’s life and in the work place. It allows a person to renew their energy levels and sustain high performance at work.

And on that note, back to the essay!