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How to Practice “Discontinuous Productivity”

Doesn’t “practice discontinuous productivity” sound so technical and important? It IS powerful, but honestly it just means: Take a break. Rest your brain. But if I posted a Tuesday Tip titled “Just Rest a Little Here and There” would you have read it?

If you are like most of my clients, probably not. Most people I know are afraid (terrified?) to rest during the workday and go to great lengths to hide the breaks they take. As a society, we are super committed to the factory model of continuous production that arose during the industrial revolution. But, as I’ve written about before, the human brain did not evolve to work well nonstop. You can probably work for eight to ten hours straight, I know. But here is the real question: Why would you want to work in a way that doesn’t optimize your brain’s natural power? That doesn’t optimize your intelligence, energy, efficiency, creativity, and, frankly, the joy you derive from your work?

One simple (if not easy) way to get the best of your brain power is to rest between periods of productivity. After about 90 minutes of high output, your energy will naturally dip. Your brain needs a period of recovery, or tension and stress will start to build, and productivity will start to decline. So work with, not against, your brain’s natural cycles of high and low energy (which are called “ultradian rhythms”).

Productivity experts recommend periods of intense focus followed by high-quality periods of rest. Rest periods needn’t be long if you truly take a break. But, I’ll be honest here, rest periods are better if they last about…90 minutes. I know, I know. That seems too long today, when we want everything instantly. I’m old enough to remember a time in corporate America — I worked at The Quaker Oats Company — when we regularly took lunch breaks that lasted an hour or more. Today we want an insta-break; 1 minute seems ideal in a world where many people don’t leave their desks for lunch.

Even if you can’t find 90 minutes between meetings, you can practice “discontinuousproductivity.” Try going for a little walk outside, chatting with a coworker or neighbor about a new movie, or eating lunch outside or near a sunny window. One productivity expert, Bob Pozen, closes his office door after lunch and naps for 30 minutes. Pozen has worked as a top mutual fund executive, an attorney, a government official, a law school professor, a business school professor and a prolific author–often doing several jobs at once. If he can nap midday, for crying out loud, so can the rest of us.

Join the discussion: Do you have any tips for making time for breaks in your day? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Photo by Simon Matzinger.