worksurfingThe New York Times recently published an intriguing article entitled “Relax, You Will Be More Effective.” It arrived at just the right time. Preparing for an upcoming vacation had made me particularly hectic. And then, while I was on vacation and writing this post, I got a blog post from MoodScope which was devoted to the importance of taking regular breaks from work, and also about how giving yourself a time limit for certain tasks can actually improve the quality of the work you do.

The New York Times article, written by Tony Schwartz who has become an expert in human  productivity, and creativity, reviewed some of the scientific information supporting the importance of regular breaks from work.

Some of the findings that were quoted in the article included the following intriguing study results –

In a study of nearly 400 employees, published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.

The Stanford researcher Cheri D. Mah found that when she got male basketball players to sleep 10 hours a night, their performances in practice dramatically improved: free-throw and three-point shooting each increased by an average of 9 percent.

Daytime naps have a similar effect on performance. When night shift air traffic controllers were given 40 minutes to nap — and slept an average of 19 minutes — they performed much better on tests that measured vigilance and reaction time.

Longer naps have an even more profound impact than shorter ones. Sara C. Mednick, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Riverside, found that a 60- to 90-minute nap improved memory test results as fully as did eight hours of sleep.

The article suggests that there are two kinds of breaks that are important: regular breaks throughout the day and vacations.

We have discussed vacations elsewhere in this blog, so here I want to focus on changing the way that you work during the day. Mr. Schwartz notes that several studies suggest that we have regular patterns of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day, just as we have regular cycles of sleep at night. He argues that taking short breaks from work roughly every 90 minutes can improve productivity, just as getting enough sleep at night, and taking short naps in the early afternoon, seems to do in several studies.

An intriguing set of studies on violinists who were felt to have the greatest potential for success in their profession suggested that it is helpful to increase the intensity of your work while reducing how long you work. In those studies, people with the greatest potential weren’t necessarily the most talented, they were the ones who were best at doing intense practice, and practicing more than 4 hours a day didn’t seem to result in better results.

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.

In a book by Mr. Schwartz entitled Be Excellent at Anything he argues that this approach can result in significant performance improvements in just about every profession. The book is well written and thought provoking and I can recommend it to blog readers.

As a counterpoint to this thought provoking article, in the comments posted online in response to the New York Times article many people noted that their work situation didn’t allow them to take breaks, and their bosses didn’t seem to care about the evidence from experts like Tony Schwartz. Others suggested that their work wasn’t about productivity or creativity, it was just a matter of being there.