Use downtime to improve performance and relieve stress


Photo: Mario

It’s time to take a brief break and discuss our work day schedules.

I’m not talking about the mad dash out the door in the morning, or the now classic “migraine-inducing life-suck” known as your daily commute.  This is a conversation about the never-ending, multi-tasking, interruption facilitating, over stimulating, neuron exploding thing called your work day.

It’s a wonder we get anything done at all.

Over the past several years the quality of life in the American workplace has been on a steady decline.  First there was the Great Recession with its fear of the imminent layoff.  Then there was the constant march toward productivity improvements, whereby as your colleagues disappeared those who remained were required to do more and more.

The net result is a work day in which you are scheduled in 15-minute increments with nary a moment to stop for a breath of fresh air.  And the crush may be jeopardizing your health, not to mention your job status. 

With the advent of smartphones, laptops, and other marvels of modern day communications, we are seemingly on call 24/7.  In fact, that has become the new normal.  We are expected to be available at any time, to respond at a moment’s notice, and to always be “on.”

The computer screen, be it on a mobile devise or tethered to an electric life line, is the alter at which we pay our daily devotions – all day and all night.

We simply don’t stop.  And therein lies the problem.

The brain requires rest in order to perform efficiently and effectively.  Peak performers in the arts, athletics, and trades employ bursts of activity followed by breaks of varying lengths.

It is these breaks, as much as the activity itself, that fuels their accomplishments.  And so it is for the rest of us as we toil each day at our jobs.

Without breaks from workday stresses our performance suffers.  We get to the point where we look at something or think about a problem and nothing sinks in.  Our brain temporarily freezes, just like your computer when you open too many screens at once.

The solution is downtime.

Scheduled and random breaks and buffers to our normal work flow provide the space we all need to process what has come before, to consolidate memory and identify patterns, and to restore our ability to focus.

Ferris Jabr, in Scientific American, notes that “many recent studies have corroborated the idea that our mental resources are continuously depleted throughout the day and that various kinds of rest and downtime can both replenish those reserves and increase their volume.”

Among the findings is that downtime increases productivity.  According to Jackie and John Coleman, “Taking the time to get out of the details and view the larger picture can help us better understand the purpose and priority of our tasks.”

Downtime also encourages creativity.  Aha moments rarely come when working your way through a to-do list.  On the other hand, many a frequent flyer look forward to their time aloft as a refreshing break that provides time to think, or simply unwind.

Finally, downtime improves your health, both physical and mental, as well as your relationships.  On the far side of the spectrum, workaholics are renowned for chronic health issues and failed marriages.

So with all this in mind, what can we do?

Schedule downtime.  If you are one of those whose every waking moment is scheduled, schedule evenings off, days off, and vacation time.  If you can get away with it, schedule naps.  Naps are good.

Take breaks.  If you’re stuck, get up and walk away.  Take 15 minutes to wander and ponder, or to chat with a colleague.  Some enlightened companies even have rooms set aside for ping-pong, or in-house coffee shops.

Disconnect.  Create boundaries whereby you can step away from the phone, the computer, and your job.  During these times it is important to unplug – to disconnect from the digital and get in touch with your inner analog.

Use routines to free up mental space.  When we create a routine we get into a habit, thus allowing us to not think about the details of what we are doing.  These routines also signal the brain that it is time to work on something specific.

In much the same vein, I am a fan of single-tasking.  (Some might claim I am an even bigger fan of no-tasking, but that’s a story for another day.)  If you focus on a single task or problem you are able to devote more energy to it.

If you live in a 24/7 world of frantic doing, much of this will sound foreign, if not far-fetched.  But by embracing downtime away from your work, you will find that, once again, slowing down is the key to catching up.  And in the process you will improve your performance while relieving the seemingly unending stress of your work day.


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