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Break often, but briefly, during your workday.

That’s the advice of executive coach Naphtali Hoff, who says it may seem counterintuitive but will lead to greater productivity. “Your brain, your mind and your to-do list will thank me,” he writes on SmartBrief.

Breaks help us process and retain information, the more relaxed state allowing our minds to wander and solve problems creatively. Breaks allow us to step back and reassess our goals and priorities. Because our minds can’t focus for too long on a single task, breaks keep us from getting bored and unfocused. Breaks also cut down on decision fatigue and help restore our motivation to continue long-term tasks.

Ideally, breaks should be crafted into your day, part of your work plan. The Pomodoro technique is the classic. It involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, working flat out, and then taking a five-minute break. That 30-minute period is called a Pomodoro – named after the tomato-shaped timer the system’s creator used – and you follow with three more Pomodoros. Now you grant yourself a longer break of about half an hour.

“Knowing that you have a finite end to each time chunk adds an element of urgency, which helps you be more focused and decisive. It also allows you to push aside distractors, knowing that you can attend to them soon enough,” says Mr. Hoff.

But he offers two other possible schemes. One is to work for 90 minutes before breaking. That fits the body’s natural cycle of moving from higher to lower levels of alertness, which researchers have called the ultradian rhythm. The late K. Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University professor who studied elite violinists, athletes and chess players, found the best ones practised in focused sessions of no more than 90 minutes.

A simpler method is to just agree with yourself that you will take two 15-minute breaks each day, one in mid-morning and one in mid-afternoon. Mr. Hoff says it’s not as effective as the two other techniques but still of value. “Since most of us are least productive at around 3 p.m., you definitely don’t want to skip that break,” he adds.

Blogger Jory MacKay offers a different perspective by looking at rest and recovery at the end of the workday. Ideally, to help you feel relaxed and inspired for another day, he says you need three elements: Relax your mind, relax your body, and relax your expectations.

To relax your mind, you must close the remaining “open loops” of the day – the tasks, responsibilities and commitments you have been wrestling with. A master list on which they are placed is a big help or a list of tomorrow’s activities. Recording the progress you have made during the day can be helpful.

Relaxing your mind also involves dealing with your perceived constant need to be ready to respond to a message or jump into work. “You anticipate and feel future stress, even if it never materializes,” he writes on the Rescue Time blog. The solution is to change the expectations of others you work with.

Relaxing your body gets a lot of attention these days and can involve such options as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and spending time in nature.

The missing element in most people’s wind-down routine, he argues, is the mental shift from work to non-work mode. That involves relaxing expectations – yours and other people’s. “Work has become so all-consuming that the threat of it in our off hours keeps us on high alert,” he writes.

The biggie here is to talk to your boss. When his company interviewed more than 500 workers about their habits and working styles, 75 per cent said they’d never had a conversation with their boss or colleagues about communication expectations and boundaries. “Changing the way you work starts with being open and upfront about when you’re available and when you’re not,” he says.

You need – and deserve – breaks today.

Quick hits

  • After finding value in seven-minute workouts crammed into her busy day, Brenne Whisky founder Allison Parc looked at business activities that could fit into seven minutes – such as writing thank you notes, or speaking to her sales managers – and then added a once-a-week power hour, usually Wednesdays, with a timer on her desk, and phone at the other side of the room, when she could tackle whatever she deemed important.
  • Leadership development consultant Rae Ringel abhors the phrase “I’m going to give you 10 minutes of your life back,” used often by a team leader when a meeting finishes early. You should be celebrating the fruits of your collaboration rather than implying it has been inferior to time spent alone. Her replacement: “Wow. Because everyone was so productive, we’re done 10 minutes early. Thank you so much for your presence and participation. Have a great day.”
  • Simple is nearly always better. But if what you’re working on is going to be complicated, make sure the problem is worth the complexity, says author James Clear.
  • Listening to a group of salespeople cataloguing all the things that frustrate them, consultant Steve Keating realized most of it was out of their control. When he got them to look at what they could control, they realized that list was longer than their frustrations. If you want control over your life, make a similar list; it may surprise you how long it is.
  • To quickly increase the point size of a section of a Microsoft Word document, tech writer Allen Wyatt advises selecting the text and then pressing Ctrl+]. It will increase one point every time you do that. To decrease type size, press Ctrl+[.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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