Can More Free Time Help with Productivity?
Feeling stressed from your unread work emails? The papers piling up on your office desk? The endless meetings with your coworkers?
Just take a break.
But who can do that? Look at everything that needs to get done.
It may sound counterintuitive, but some experts are extolling the benefits of truly enjoying free time — whether it’s a lunch away from your desk, a weekend without work tasks, or even a vacation where the job never crosses your mind — as a tool to stimulate productivity.
Taking time away from business is an opportunity to clear your mind, learn new things and get fresh perspectives, all of which can help you become more effective when you’re back at work.
Breaks Conserve Energy
Without time off, employees risk getting stuck in a “constant state” of burnout and exhaustion, according to Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management and operations in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona.
“Taking time off is critical for employee well-being, which in turn can have significant implications for engagement and productivity,” Gabriel says. “If we think about a typical workday for most employees, they are likely to spend almost every minute of their day engaged in something — whether it’s attending a meeting, answering emails, writing reports or speaking with clients. All these experiences deplete the resources employees have to stay productive and efficient.”
You may think you can eat lunch and return emails at the same time, or work on a report while spending a week’s vacation at the beach. Your brain may have a different idea, experts say.
“There’s a growing body of research indicating we don’t multitask very well,” says John P. Trougakos, an assistant professor of management at the University of Toronto. “We have a limited amount of cognitive resources, and when we jump back and forth, we don’t give our attention to any one thing. You just aren’t as productive as you think you are when you don’t get a break.”
Make Your Downtime Count
According to a study from the team behind the productivity and time-tracking application, DeskTime, workers who stepped away from their computers were more productive than those who “powered through and continued to work ungodly hours,” Trougakos says.
“When we take our breaks, it recharges and reenergizes us, and provides that sharpening of our mental and physical capacity to do the work more effectively again,” he says.
Step Away from the Screen
A break doesn’t mean scrolling through social media updates on the phone or computer, either — your brain needs a real rest, according to Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.
“If you don’t take real breaks, your brain will take fake ones, such as toggling back and forth between emails without really answering them, checking headlines or online shopping,” Vanderkam says. “None of these things really add to your energy levels. Real breaks do. These can look different for everyone, but they generally involve disconnecting for a bit.”
Free Time=Health Benefits
Your overall wellness will likely improve with effective breaks, too. According to Gabriel, research suggests that people who “fully disconnect from work” will have fewer headaches, backaches and less eye strain and fatigue.
“Think of it as resting while you are sick,” Gabriel says. “Doctors will tell you to take downtime to properly recover your mental and psychological health. The same can be said for taking time off from work — you need the downtime to properly recover your mental and psychological health, and even your physical health.”
In the big picture, working all the time doesn’t really do you, or your career, any favors. So take a little time for yourself and disconnect from your devices — you may find you’re that much more productive when you plug in again.