‘Nano transitions’ are the secret to staying productive and avoiding burnout

Part of the job.
Part of the job.
Image: Reuters/Alberto Lingria
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This morning, after donning my most professional sweatshirt, I sat down prepared to focus on work.

Within an hour, my parents’ retirement home called twice to discuss my father’s health. As I returned to my computer screen, my reporter husband popped into my home office with an update about his latest story. Finally, I settled in again, but my dog pranced over to my chair and pawed at my knee—she needed to go out.

Anyone with young children, aging parents, roommates, friends, pets, or, you know, a personal life is familiar with these nano transitions, the moments during the workday when you briefly tilt away from work, often stepping into another role as a daughter, sibling, or confidante to a dear friend, or just to do something necessary for yourself.

You wouldn’t call these diversions nano transitions, of course. That term has only recently been coined by M. Gloria González-Morales, associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, along with Claremont graduate students, Megan Benzing, Alyssa Birnbaum, and Chloe Darlington. They propose that nano transitions are the natural extension of boundary theory, which gave us the concepts of macro transitions (retirement, job changes) and micro transitions (commuting), as key to understanding how people integrate life and work.

They have smart reasons for raising the profile of these short border-crossings now: with millions of people working from home in the wake of Covid-19, nano transitions can make or break your productivity—and sanity.

Through interviews with people working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, González-Morales’ team discovered that nano transitions—which are fluid and often fleeting—are now occurring constantly, compared to what González-Morales calls our “previous normality.” If the barrier between work and life was once as porous as swiss cheese, it has since become a fine mesh.

Because the researchers spoke to only 40 people for their in-depth qualitative interviews, they don’t want to generalize to every remote worker. Still, readers might find their observations resonate with their own experiences.

For example, participants talked of toggling between desk work and laundry, or power napping between spreadsheets, or having dinner, then floating back to their laptops. “There’s no such thing as delineated space and time” for work, says Birnbaum. Now the workday is “ebbing and flowing” around the clock.

Nano transitions have always existed, González-Morales says, but they were discouraged at most offices and therefore camouflaged as work or entirely hidden. Taking a moment to buy groceries or spending five minutes on Facebook because your brain needs relief from data analysis, these are tasks that would have been seen as counterproductive before the pandemic, says González-Morales, who is also an associate editor at Work & Stress journal.

Sure, maybe if you had special privileges in an office or held a senior position, you wouldn’t need to disguise these moments away from the grind. But most people didn’t want to be caught flaunting tacit rules about how to spend their time on the clock. If your brother phoned with questions about a family vacation, you answered him with your most formal, courteous voice, as if you might be talking to a client.

González-Morales predicts this kind of office theater will be consigned to pre-pandemic work history. “Supervisors and managers, they need to understand that people have taken agency over their workflows and their work life,” she says. They’re not going to give it up when they go back to the office. Working from home productively “has given them the idea that, ‘Yeah, I can manage my work not based on who’s watching or whether coworkers are there.’” So we need to understand how nano transitions operate, she says, and “we need to give these breaks legitimacy.”

Nano transitions can boost your productivity

Nano transitions can be replenishing: Taking a tiny vacation from work that add up to create a greater sense of ease in your life. Knowing that you turned the oven on and started the prep work for dinner reduces your cognitive load. Spending five minutes with the sonic landscape of a national park or a meditative video can bring down stress levels. Walking is excellent exercise that can clear your mind and make space for a creative breakthrough.

However, says Darlington, among their interviewees, some people were weaving life and work together like it was second nature, and others were struggling to manage their time and stay on top of work without the structure of an office routine. This was true in the early weeks of the pandemic and still true last fall, when the researchers conducted a second set of interviews. “A finding that could have emerged was that people were saying, ‘Yes, I’m really doing much better than I was back in March in terms of managing my day.’ But we didn’t really find that,” she says.

Detailed interviews with the people who did feel recharged from nano transitions allowed González-Morales’s team to develop a framework for optimizing the sudden fluidity with which life and work now mix. Nano transitions need AIR, they argue: they need to be autonomous, intentional, and regulated.

Breaks that you don’t autonomously schedule feel like interruptions, cutting into your flow and breaking your train of thought. “If you were in the office and [a manager] said, ‘We’re having an office party gathering that you all have to come to for this break,’” says Birnbaum, that can actually make the social event a chore.

Intentional breaks are also more restful, compared to say responding to a text message and then “mindlessly flipping into Facebook without realizing it,” she adds.” Finally, regulating your breaks prevents five consciously planned and purposeful minutes with TV news music choreography TikTok from turning into a lost hour with ostrich TikTok.

When people were good regulators, the researchers learned, they could take long breaks and still get their work done. “The people that were [breaking] intentionally, sometimes for hours in the middle of their day, they’d say ‘I think it’s really important right now to go do all my grocery shopping and hang out with a friend, and then I’m going to push my work till night,’” Birnbaum explains. “That was actually working out for them versus the people that said, ‘Well, I’m going to start watching something and then it becomes two hours later, and then they’re constantly filling in their work time, late at night or on the weekend, so work kind of became their life.”

Anyone who finds that nano transitioning routinely aggravates their stress levels may need to diagnose which of the AIR components they’re missing. Take the interruptions to my morning. I could have made the most of those interruptions by choosing to turn them into something deliberate. “If you’re at home and your partner comes out and interrupts you and asks you to do something,” says Benzing,  “if you then decided, ‘OK, well, now I’m not working, so I’m going to take a break now,’ or ‘I’m already no longer paying attention now, I’m going to do something else for a while,’ it changes from being an interruption into something more similar to a nano transition,” and it takes on the positive qualities of a break.

“Or you could also build a fence and say, ‘No, you’re interrupting me right now. Give me five minutes or ten minutes,” says González-Morales. This approach can make the break more autonomous, too.

The professor hopes to drill down on the personality traits that make some people better nano transitioners in a future study.  Perhaps some of us ought to default to blocking all nano transitions because taking multiple flash-breaks is a recipe for failure. Still, she says, “This is something that people can be trained to do as well. It can be supported by leaders and it can be modeled by leaders.”

Talking to your team about work breaks

And it probably should be, too, because the social context for mini-breaks can also help or hinder their usefulness. Emotional reactions (including your own guilt or anxiety), the norms that develop around these transitions, and company culture all impact how well the breaks will work, the researchers suggest. If you feel uneasy exercising at lunch because you worry your teammates resent you for it, it’s probably not going to be a relaxing break.

In many organizations, new norms are being established right now, whether mindfully or by happenstance, the researchers say. For example, one interviewee told them they could tell during an audio call that their boss was out walking during an important meeting, and it made them think to themselves, “Well, I can do that too.”

Instead of leaving it up to employees to interpret norms, however, González-Morales recommends that managers establish that employees are indeed trusted to work, walk and talk, or nap as needed. Find out what people value, how their schedules work, and what time of day concentration comes easily.

A conversation like that can shift the balance of power for those who still feel reluctant to finish an online grocery order, anyone fearful of new productivity-tracking software, and for the many whose nano transitions are controlling them, instead of the other way around.