Improve your productivity with breaks

You know the drill by now—I start by saying something about how our busy modern lives demand for us to be more productive and therefore proceed to list a few different ways to achieve this.

Well now…at the risk of this sounding like one of those “just one weird little trick” headlines, what if you could be more productive by working less?

Productivity hacks

I’m by no means an authority on this subject but in the past I’ve dabbled with lots of different productivity “hacks” …mostly because they sounded like quick fixes and when you’re down and out that’s what you think you need.

There are lots of different apps or extensions out there like StayFocusd, Pomodoro timers, or just patronising advice like “close all your social media apps”, “don’t look at your phone”, etc.

I’ve tried all these things, and none of them worked in the long run—probably because they’re not tackling the root cause of distraction—energy and motivation.

What worked for me was 2 things…

Think about forcing yourself to have breaks rather than forcing yourself to work

For me, techniques like the Pomodoro technique focussed too much on forcing myself to work, rather than having fun; which in turn made me want to rebel.

As soon as I thought about it the other way around it became much easier. This is just a question of mentality but instead I now think “I’m just going to work because I enjoy it, but at the same time I’m going to disconnect every now and again because I’m a human being and I need balance.”

This idea came to me when reading the Fast Company article The Exact Amount Of Time You Should Work Every Day.

“They conducted an experiment to see what habits set their most productive employees apart. What they found was that the 10% of employees with the highest productivity surprisingly didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. In fact, they didn’t even work full eight-hour days. What they did do was take regular breaks. Specifically, they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.”

…I like this idea—to be at your most productive you need to work in small concentrated periods of time. When these periods are over you need to completely disconnect—as in…walk away from the computer, and leave your phone in your pocket. Go and talk to someone to make sure you stay away from your screen, or if you’re a freelancer go and make a cup of tea, or walk around the block.

The idea here is to leave your work behind so you can regather your focus and not feel fidgety when you sit down again.

Work to a rhythm rather than a fixed hour

So I adjusted my mentality, and made sure I was disconnecting. But something was still off for me. Taking a break every hour still felt too rigid. Sometimes I would be really into my work and didn’t want to take a break… other times I wasn’t feeling it and wanted to take a break after 45 minutes.

The thing that solved this for me was working around music “mood blocks”. Let me explain…

As a designer I feel completely compelled to listen to music when I’m working; when I bury myself in the mood of an album I more readily get into “the zone”. I know other people feel the same way about this kind of isolation.

Well… it just so struck me that the average album is between 40 and 60 minutes long. So this is what I suggest you try…

  • Stick on a favourite album to kick off work. The beginning of an album can feel like the beginning of a journey, so it can get you in the right frame of mind
  • Tell yourself that you should take a break after the album has finished
  • When the album has finished do one of three things:
  1. Take a break straight away. Walk away from the computer (important). Leave your phone in your pocket (important). Talk to someone if you can. Or get out of your room
  2. If you need to work a tiny bit longer to finish something off then do so, but don’t put on any other music, because you’re at the end of a mood cycle, remember!
  3. If you’re really in the zone and are being particularly productive then don’t take a break—stick on another album and go for another mood cycle


Work on something that makes you excited

Sometimes trying to be more productive simply doesn’t cut it. You need to find something that you can get sucked into; something that you can mould and become consumed by. Even at my most unproductive times if I found the right thing to work on I wouldn’t need any productivity “hacks”.

I’ll always remember a bit of advice Jason Santa Maria gave at New Adventures 2013, which was to prioritise working on things that you feel excited about, even if it means pushing against some other things that feel more urgent. To keep moving and find your rhythm is the most important thing.

To be honest the more I work on things I love, the less I even need to think about working to a rhythm; it just happens. But now I know if I ever get in a rut (which still happens), I have better tactics available to me that are not so much about punishment, but rather adjusting to my humanity.

“The secret to retaining the highest level of productivity in workday is not working longer–but smarter with frequent breaks

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