As entrepreneurs, we are celebrated for logging numerous hours. Our culture praises the managers and employees who are first in and last to leave the office.
It has taken me nearly two decades as a type A entrepreneur to understand that running at full steam without pause isnt good for my happiness, creativity or productivity. In fact, it was jeopardizing both my health and business. But it took several extreme situations, like the time I fainted due to exhaustion or had to pull my car over during a panic attack, before I finally woke up to the fact I needed to change my ways.
As such, I started looking into different work styles. I began reading what researchers have said about the importance of breaks. And, these lessons apply to everyone entrepreneurs, as well as employees and parents, not to mention employers and managers who are tasked with the wellbeing and productivity of their workforce.
Lesson one: The human brain isnt built for constant focus
Our brains werent built for the extended periods of focus that are often expected today. The human brain has evolved to be vigilant, constantly on alert to detect any changes in our environment, rather than be solely focused on a single task at hand.
Back in 2008, a University of Illinois study found that if people spent a prolonged period focusing on one task, their performance suffered. In the experiment, participants were asked to focus on a single task for 50 minutes; some were given breaks (in the form of diversions) and others were not. Performance declined significantly over the course of the task for the participants who didnt break. The other group, who had two diversions in those 50 minutes, showed no drop in performance.
Psychologyprofessor Alejandro Lleras,who led the new study, compared the results to a similar phenomenon that occurs with sensory perception. When a sight, sound, or feeling is constant over time, we become habituated to the feeling and the stimulus doesnt register in the brain. Thats why youre not constantly thinking about the shirt sleeve touching your arm.
“From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task,” Lleras said.
Lesson two: Focused and diffuse thinking
Another way to look at the importance of breaks is to understand that our brains have two modes for thinking: Focused mode and diffuse mode. Focused thinking is when we concentrate really hard at a particular task at hand. From a neurochemical standpoint, the brain is using the prefrontal cortex to ignore everything else and concentrate on one thing.
Diffuse thinking is more relaxed daydreaming. This occurs when were distracted by other things and let our minds wander freely. Unlike focused mode, diffuse thinking doesnt happen in just one part of the brain but all over. This allows the brain to connect the dots and link neural processes.
When it comes to solving complex problems, the brain needs to switch between the two modes. Spending too much time in focused mode can block your ability to see creative solutions.
As Dr. Barbara Oakley discussed inA Mind For Numbers: “When you’re focusing, you’re actually blocking your access to the diffuse modeAnd the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem.”
So, if youve ever had an awesome revelation or breakthrough while driving, walking the dog or taking a shower, thats the power of diffuse thinking.
Lesson three: Not all breaks are created equal
If we know that the brain is a muscle that tires from repeated stress, the question is whats the best way to rest and recharge it? Are all breaks created equal? Is checking Facebook the same as meditating?
Most experts agree that to truly benefit from a break, you should remove yourself from digital devices. This means you cant use your break time to catch up on email. When youre browsing your inbox, your mind is still occupied; your eyes are tired from the screen; you havent physically moved.
Julia Giffords wrote of a study conducted using the time-tracking app DeskTime where they studied the most productive employees. The most productive people worked for 52 minutes, then took a break for 17 minutes. She wrote, during the 17 minutes of break, youre completely removed from the work youre doingyoure entirely resting, not peeking at your email every five minutes or just quickly checking Facebook.
Some of the best breaks include taking a brisk walk, chatting with a co-worker, listening to music, stretching or meditation. Personally, I have learned to make exercise a priority in my daily routine. I always set aside time for meditation at night, and I no longer give my husband/business partner such a hard time when he takes a quick nap mid-day to recharge.
Most importantly, Ive learned to drop the guilt or anxiety that can come with taking a break. I know now that I am more impactful when I take small, but purposeful breaks throughout the day.
Nellie Akalp is an entrepreneur, business expert, speaker, author, wife and mother to four. Her first business was started with $100 and sold eight years later for $20 million. Today she is the founder & CEO of CorpNet.com, an online legal document filing service, where she helps entrepreneurs incorporate, form LLCs, file DBAs and keep their businesses in compliance. Nellie has been named a Top 100 Small Business Influencer by Small Business Trends the last five years and CorpNet.com has been recognized on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing privately-held companies in America in 2015 and 2016