Trying to get a lot done? Take a break.


The way most of us work isn’t working. Study after study has shown that companies are experiencing a crisis in employee engagement. A 2007 Towers Perrin survey of nearly 90,000 employees worldwide, for instance, found that only 21% felt fully engaged at work and nearly 40% were disenchanted or disengaged.

Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project and author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working was recently interviewed on HBR's Ideacast. He is also the author of the HBR article The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less.

In the podcast Schwartz discussed some counter-intuitive ideas about productivity. Specifically, he explained that like our normal sleep cycles at night, our body cycles throughout the day and it is important to recognize those cycles in order to be productive at work. What does that mean?

Take breaks. About every 90 minutes our body cycles. Which means we can be "on" and highly productive for stretches of only about that long. Then we need a break--specifically a good break. Not just switching from spreadsheets to e-mail or Facebook for a few minutes. Instead Schwartz talks about going for a short walk or calling a family member - both ways to help your mind recover from the work it has been doing.

He cited a great example of an Indy 500 racer. The one who wins is not the driver who simply goes the fastest for the longest. The driver that wins is the one who takes regular pit stops to recover and put his car in top condition.

There are still a lot of challenges to applying these ideas personally and across a workplace. Will others think you're wasting time when you're out on a walk, or on the phone with your spouse? How will you keep up these breaks when it gets busy? The article, and the podcast help to address these concerns.

Once people understand how their supply of available energy is influenced by the choices they make, they can learn new strategies that increase the fuel in their tanks and boost their productivity. If people define precise times at which to do highly specific activities, these new behaviors eventually become automatic and no longer require conscious will and discipline. We refer to them as rituals. They’re simple but powerful. They include practices such as shutting down your e-mail for a couple of hours during the day, so you can tackle important or complex tasks without distracting interruptions, or taking a daily 3 PM walk to get an emotional and mental breather.

What we failed to fully appreciate in our early work was that once we finished our sessions with employees and sent them back into the workplace, they often ran into powerful organizational resistance to the very principles and practices we’d taught them. We still believe that enduring organizational change is possible only if individuals alter their attitudes and behaviors first. But we’ve come to understand that it’s not possible to generate lasting cultural change without deeply involving an organization’s senior leadership.

What do you do to recover mentally? I'm off to take a walk.