Most of us hit the ground running on a typical workday.
We’re checking our e-mail from our phones before we’re even out of bed. We eat meals, if you can call them that, in the car and at our desks. We start early and end late, and work as many moments in between as possible to keep up with the never-ending demand. Our time is compressed and we are stretched to our limits.
As a result, many of us just don’t feel that great. We’re tired—the kind of tired that isn’t alleviated by sleep. We rely on caffeine to get us going in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon too. Our work can feel like a monumental struggle. It takes a lot of effort to keep moving at this pace.
When we don’t feel well, it’s impossible to perform at our best.
When we are stressed, anxious and fearful we operate from survival mode—we just barely deliver the basics of our work—let alone have the energy to create elements of surprise and delight that can define great performance on the job.
If you’re anything like me and you find yourself in survival mode in the workplace, you get stuck in the pattern; you just keep grinding through. If it’s not getting done, we work longer and harder, squeezing every moment out of every day.
These long periods of stress affect our overall well-being. In addition to a whole host of other symptoms our cognitive ability can actually decrease, making it impossible to think as clearly as we used to.
A study by the Yale Stress Center indicates that experiencing stress can reduce grey matter in critical regions of the brain and can impair the brain’s ability to store information and respond to the environment. In other words, stress can make you stupid. Compounding that, cumulative stress makes it more difficult to deal with future stress too.
The good news is that a new body of research backs up what we might intuitively know, but often choose to ignore; that it is precisely in our stressful moments and periods that we need to stop working so hard and give ourselves a break in order to be more productive.
Easier said than done for most of us, I know.
Here are a few simple ways:
1. Take a lunch break.
A friend of mine just took a new job for a software company. In his old position as a programmer, the culture encouraged employees to work an insane number of hours everyday—working through lunch and into the evening. In the new company, workers are encouraged to leave the office for lunch.
If you’re not accustomed to doing this, it can take some getting used to. The American Dietetic Association says that 75 percent of workers eat lunch at their desks at least two to three times a week. Adding insult to injury, many people who don’t take that break fuel up later in the afternoon with caffeine and sweets, perpetuating a cycle of insomnia and sleep deprivation.
If you’re not taking a lunch break regularly, try it. Schedule it in, if necessary. You may find yourself back in your workspace more relaxed, energized and ready to tackle the afternoon..
2. Take a nap.
Many of us experience a dip in our energy in the afternoon as we digest our lunch.
When that tired feeling hits, it becomes a challenge to maintain our focus and to truly be present for what needs to be done. The National Sleep Foundation concludes that a short nap of 20—30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness and performance and reduce mistakes and accidents.
The benefits are seen not just directly after the nap, but for hours afterwards as well.
If the idea of lying down on the job seems unreasonable to you, know that studies show that even a 10 minute nap improves cognitive performance.
If you’re lucky, your employer is already hip to the benefits of napping and provides access to nap-friendly zones like Nike, Google and many others.
To nap well, lie down in a dark, quiet place, not too late in the day and try a 10—30 minute break. Although actual sleep yields the most positive outcome, even just lying down and resting can be beneficial.
Of all the ways we can recharge ourselves, exercise seems to be the most beneficial. Though it may feel counter-intuitive to expend energy in order to reap more energy, it works. Numerous studies of exercise in the workplace illustrate that exercise enhances your mental performance on the job.
I love to point out that while many of us think we don’t have time to exercise during the workday, studies show exercise actually improves your time management skills and ability to meet deadlines.
Ultimately, exercise also affects your mood. Workers who exercise finish their days feeling more satisfied. Who doesn’t want to feel that way?!
One of the great things about exercise is that it doesn’t matter what kind, for how long or how hard you do it, it is all beneficial.
So, if the way you work isn’t working for you, try taking a break. I’m willing to bet that not only will you get more done in less time—you’ll
probably enjoy it more too!
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Assistant Ed: Dusty Ranft/Ed: Brianna Bemel