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An R&R room at the office? It could be just what the company needs Add to ...

Tony Schwartz wants us to sleep more, take more vacations, stop checking e-mail and daydream.

No, he isn't encouraging us to be slackers. The New York-based author of the new book The Way We're Working Isn't Working, co-written with Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy, says we can be more productive by fluctuating between bursts of rest and highly focused work.

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Humans aren't meant to perform like computers, at high speed, continuously, for long periods of time, he says. Yet we routinely try to do so, neglecting our four key needs - our physical needs, met through fitness, nutrition and rest; our emotional need to feel valued; our mental need to control our attention; and our spiritual need to believe that what we do matters.

A complete overhaul of how we operate is in order, Mr. Schwartz says.

Radical? Maybe. But considering his book has become a New York Times No. 2 bestseller within weeks of publication, his workplace revolution may be catching on.

Your book suggests it's possible to get more done by spending less time at work. Can you explain?

I don't think it's so much about spending less time at work; I think it's about shifting the focus from time to energy. The more continuously and longer you work, the less incremental return you get on each additional hour.

We are physiologically meant to pulse, and we operate best when we move between spending energy and renewing energy. We value spending energy and we are good at it, but we undervalue renewing energy, even though that's a powerful way to improve performance.

How did we lose sight of the renewal part?

It's not very long ago at all when if you got into your car to drive home, that was almost by definition renewal time. Remember, less than three decades ago, there was no such thing as a cell phone. Now, you get into a car or you get onto an airplane and you can keep working. So unless you intentionally build renewal time, it will no longer be there. It will have disappeared.

In a business world that lives by the ethic of "more, bigger, faster," renewal doesn't get any respect.

You advise working in 90-minute bursts, and taking breaks in between. Is there something magical about the 90-minute interval?

First of all, I would say you want to work in increments of no more than 90 minutes. You don't have to work 90 minutes.

Why is it magical? Because there is a rhythm in our bodies that operates in 90-minute intervals. That rhythm is the ultradian rhythm, which moves between high arousal and fatigue. If you're working over a period of 90 minutes, there are all kinds of indicators in your physiology of fatigue so what your body is really saying to you is "Give me a break. Refuel me."

You offer the example of John Weiser, president of the television division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. He goes to bed every night at 10 p.m., sleeps for seven hours, manages to go to the gym each morning, takes meditation breaks at work, leaves work early enough to spend time with his family and doesn't check e-mail at home. How is this possible?

It seems a little unreal. … [But]when he's working, he's really working.

Just to take an example from my own life, when I wrote this book - while, by the way, running a company, sleeping eight hours a night, working out every day, and continuing to have a marriage and kids - the reason I could do it is because I wrote the book in three 90-minute sprints every morning. And when I was writing, I took no phone calls, I didn't check e-mail, and I was 100-per-cent engaged. Then, I took a break.

One of my breaks was a run. It turned out to be a time when I got my best ideas because as we know, we don't get our best ideas while sitting at a desk.

Do you have any advice on how to take breaks without looking like a slacker?

In the best of worlds, organizations begin to recognize that this [way of working]is actually serving them well. But in most organizations, the one minute you're not working, you're a slacker. There, I think, it really becomes strategic.

There's a wonderful little breathing exercise that you can do for 30 to 60 seconds, and it's just breathing in through your nose to a count of three and out through your mouth to a count of six. You can get a lot of renewal in a short time … and it's very unlikely that a co-worker or a boss is going to come up to your desk and say, "What are you doing? I see you're breathing there."

You say that leaders can inspire and energize their employees by giving them appreciation. How should you do that without coming across as cheesy or handing out the obligatory "employee of the month"?

The most powerful way is to make it a cultural value. There's a principle in psychology that "bad" is stronger than "good," in which we default to noticing what's wrong and we are much less likely to focus on what's right. But if you're a leader or a manager, think of the feeling of being valued as a critical source of nutrition for human beings. It's a food and people need it to thrive.

That's not to say they should be praised for things that don't deserve to be praised. But it is to say that it serves not just an employee well, but a manager or leader well to be really alert to where there is a reason to appreciate and recognize another person - not as an employee of the month, but as an employee of the minute.

Do you get much resistance to your ideas?

We are arguing for a genuinely new paradigm in work. We're saying two things: We're saying to employers, "Don't worry about the number of hours your employees work; worry about the value they produce and let them figure out how to do that" and "Stop trying to get more out of your people and focus more on investing in them."

Those are pretty challenging ideas for organizations, so yes, we do run up to resistance. But here's what's fascinating: The most progressive organizations in the world, companies like Google and Sony Pictures and Ford, are embracing the work we do, and many of the companies that need us most are less interested in what we do.

 

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