Your Brain - Give It a Rest!


More evidence that rest, in the form of sleep and time off, are beneficial to personal productivity.

First, A Full Night's Sleep Can Really Pay Off—in Salary and Investments:

  • Job Performance - There's no doubt that sleep deprivation affects job performance," says the Detroit Medical Center's Safwan Badr, a former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "The evidence is compelling that when you do not get enough sleep…you are not as productive."
  • Legally Drunk - Charles Czeisler, a sleep specialist at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, agrees. "Missing a night's sleep degrades our neurobehavioral performance"—that is, our mental acuity—"by the equivalent to being legally drunk," he says. And, he warns, this doesn't only apply if you miss one night's sleep completely; you'll see similar effects if you simply sleep too little each night over time.
  • More Sleep and Higher Wages - What might those long-term effects be? Lower wages.
  • Chances are you’re sleep deprived - We get far less sleep than our grandparents, say specialists. Dr. Czeisler says 20% to 30% of workers sleep less than six hours a night during the week. Fifty years ago, he says, the number was around 2% to 3%.

Second, The Secret to Increased Productivity: Taking Time Off:

  • Limited Pool of Cognitive Resources - There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources," says Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies job demands and employee motivation. "When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You're able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks."
  • Rest and Recharge Your Brain - The brain is "like a muscle. You can strengthen it or deplete it," Gabriel says. "If you let this muscle recharge and replenish, you'll feel better mentally and see improvements in your performance."

So, what’s the prescription, short-, mid-, and long-term?

  • Short-Term: Take regular breaks during the day. It only takes 90-120 minutes of on-task activity for mental performance to degrade. And working during lunch is not taking a break! Go for a walk. Talk to colleagues. Go get a cappucino with a work pal. Most of us are knowledge workers. Rest your brain several times a day when you're at work.
  • Mid-Term: Free, buffer and focus days. From The Secret to Increased Productivity: Taking Time Off, comes this excellent advice.
    • Entrepreneurs create a new calendar in which their weeks are broken down into "free days," when no work or checking in to e-mail or the office is allowed; "buffer days," for planning and preparation; and "focus days," for high-value, goal-oriented practices. It can be shock treatment for folks who haven't had a day off in months or a vacation in years.
  • Mid-Term: Schedule Mini-Breaks - It took me a few years to figure this out, but mini-breaks such as 3-day and 4-day weekends are highly restorative, particularly if you batch them around national or work holidays. But, like real vacations, they provide benefits only if you take them. So I learned to take a “mini-break” every 6 weeks.
    • Commit Yourself by Putting Mini-Breaks On Your Calendar - And, I committed to them by putting them on my calendar. As a business school Dean, my assistant, a few key staff, and numerous fund raisers always had direct access to my calendar (sounds like a mess, but it worked well). But to let them fill my calendar efficiently, I had to put the mini-breaks on my calendar so that they could schedule around them. So they had to go on the calendar. And that meant that I took them. And for you worriers who envision this as disruptive, we never missed key meetings because of these mini-breaks. Never. Why? Realistically, it was just 4-6 work days in each 6-month period built around natural breaks in my work/academic calendar. Remember, you’re not losing by scheduling time off, you’re gaining. Put mini-breaks on your calendar and take them.
    • Schedule Six Months at a Time - Except for internal appointments within the University, most of my external appointments with alumni, companies, and the business community were made 2 weeks to 3 months in advance. Scheduling mini-breaks six months at a time provided enough lead time to not interfere with those appointments. How do you make this work? Do what my wife and I did, which was to sit down at the end of June and the end of December, and pick when (usually around natural breaks in my work calendar) and where (usually to visit our sons and their families - grandkids drive our travel plans!) to take breaks. Six months is arbitrary. Maybe 3 months or 12 months is better for you. But six months worked for me because it was twice the lead time of my most difficult to schedule appointments (meaning that it didn’t interfere with scheduling) but short enough that I could recalibrate mid-year if needed.
  • Long-Term: Take Real Vacations - As I’ve written before, at least once a year, take a “real vacation” where you don’t check your email or do work. Take real, extended time off and come back refreshed and recharged.

In this always connected, always on environment, you can quickly burn yourself out and not even realize it. Don’t let that happen. Give your brain a rest by scheduling short-, mid- and long-term breaks. You’ll be happier and much more productive, no matter what you do.