Taking a break is part of your job

Taking a break can be productive.
Taking a break can be productive.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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recent study conducted at Mississippi State University challenged two groups of 20 adult male subjects to answer a series of word association problems. One group served as the control; the other 20 subjects were administered vodka-and-cranberry cocktails until their blood alcohol levels approached legal intoxication.

The results: the tipsy test subjects answered as much as 20% more of the problems in the allotted time than their sober counterparts.

Although the obvious conclusion may be “drunk people are better at solving creative problems” (as Harvard Business Review plainly put it), the obvious solution to boosting your employees’ creative problem-solving abilities is not a mandatory mid-morning happy hour.

Here’s a healthier, substance-free alternative: mandatory down time.

I’m not talking about forced vacations or suggesting that taking a breather is a guaranteed fast-track to creativity. I mean that true work lies in the balance between effort and ease.

Voluminous research supports the critical importance of recovery. But corporate work cultures around the world continue to celebrate unrelenting effort with diminishing returns. Instead, we should think of non-work time as not only something that makes us better at our jobs—but as part of our jobs.

I’ve believe so strongly in the power and effectiveness of rest, that as CEO of a tech startup, I’ve encouraged my employees to go as far as scheduling a weekly break. I want to pay them to not work, because I know that even when they step away from their work stations, they will still be thinking, and it’s in these periods of less focused thought that the best ideas often emerge. It’s like high-intensity interval training for the workplace—periods of intense work followed by rest are more efficient and ultimately more productive.

But you’re not likely to have those revelatory moments unless you build in time for them just as you would for any other work on your docket. Here is how I’ve done so at my company.

Own your productivity: Your productivity is your responsibility, not your employer’s. You know best how and when you work most efficiently, whether it’s in the mornings, late night, or even on the weekends. If you communicate to your manager how you work best—and most importantly, show results—then you can make the case for building recovery into your daily, weekly, even quarterly schedule.

Build in blocks. Lots of productivity guides note the virtues of sprinkling microbreaks throughout the day to help you grab a quick recharge. But microbreaks should be table stakes, like stopping for water during a marathon. Real recovery breaks need to be proportional to the time you spend in heads down work. Scheduling your work in blocks—including stacking meetings back to back—can help you better control your on and off times and avoid the whiplash of switching back and forth and back again between different work contexts. And using the Pomodoro method or similar framework for keeping time can hold you to a sustainable pace.

Declare your down time. We all know any time on our calendar that isn’t nailed down is fair game for someone else’s meeting. But if you block out your down time in advance — even scheduling sacred chunks of recurring “you” time—you’re not only keeping it off limits but broadcasting to your team that you take your recovery seriously. Just like they should.

Actually use unlimited PTO. While the wisdom and benefits of offering unlimited paid-time off still may be subject to debate, we’ve embraced the policy at my company, Hello Alfred. But it only works when people actually use it—and feel unequivocally encouraged by their boss to do it. Unlimited PTO policies can have the opposite effect, stirring anxiety among employees who fear they’ll be perceived as entitled by peers or called out by their managers for taking advantage. But when an employer knows her team takes responsibility for its own productivity, offering unlimited vacation entrusts them with the ability to manage their own recovery.

Model at the top. As with any behavioral or cultural change within an organization, it’s essential for leaders to model what good looks like — and this can be especially tough. If you’re an entrepreneur, pausing to recover can seem unthinkable when you’ve got investors and a board looking over your shoulder while you struggle to ship product and meet payroll. Your instinct might be to double-down, cancel all social plans, and live at the office. You’ve likely seen your mentors and peers take pride in heroically immersing themselves in work.

But there’s nothing heroic about burning fuel recklessly and starving yourself of the very things that enable you to gas up. If you want to lead a winning team that’s sustainable over time, your team needs to know that you believe in taking time out, that you understand the importance of balancing sprints with recovery—and that you will gladly pay them not to work.

Marcela Sapone is the co-founder and CEO of Hello Alfred.