There seems to be an increasing need to be ‘doing’, and a concern that relaxing our vigilance or taking a break will mean we miss something vital. This attitude may actually be causing a reduction in productivity and efficiency in the workplace, meaning our push to keep going and continue working may be backfiring.
Researchers are finding it’s not as simple as the work produced at the end of a long day being worse in quality, but that this level of work fundamentally impairs our creativity. There has even been evidence that this pattern of work can make us physically sick.
The author of ‘Two Awesome Hours’, Josh Davis, explains that the brain is like a muscle in that continual work means little can be accomplished, but creating the right sort of conditions means most things are possible. For example, compare mental exercise to physical, such as push ups. If you wanted to complete 10,000 push ups, then doing them all at once would be the most efficient tactic, but we also know it would be impossible. Instead, by doing a few at a time, spread out over a longer time period and fitted between other work, it becomes a very attainable goal.
Despite this, many people think of the brain as a computer that’s able to work constantly. This level of work with no break is actively harmful, according to some experts. Indeed, Andrew Smart, research scientist and author of Autopilot, indicates that constant work and ignoring the need for breaks leads to a chronic low-level stress response, which can be dangerous.
Research has found that longer working days can increase the risk of coronary heart disease by 40%, lead to a significantly higher risk of stroke and for those working more than 11 hours a day, a major depressive episode is 2.5 times likelier than for those working seven to eight hours.
Interestingly, we have the traditional eight hour working day because companies found cutting hours increased productivity. Ten to sixteen hour days were standard during the Industrial Revolution, but when Ford introduced eight hour days, they doubled their profit margin within two years. Amazingly, their workers were producing more each hour, but also overall. Over the last few years, Sweden has found six hour working days to be beneficial in terms of both employee health and productivity, though the trial has now ended.
Surveys of behaviour during a working day support this theory. In an investigation of two thousand workers in the UK, it was found people were productive for only 2 hours and 53 minutes in an eight hour day. Further research of the practice required to master a specific skill found the majority of people were able to work for only an hour before needing a break.
Many people find doing nothing tricky but, whilst rest is important, so is active reflection, thinking through an idea and visualising potential scenarios. This can include reading a good book, knitting or doodling.
Tips to maximise your own productivity include actively walking away from your desk when taking a break, logging out of your inbox when you leave work and meditating. However you manage it, it seems apparent that by doing less, you may actually accomplish more.
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