For people doing a job that makes demands upon their mind, body, or emotions, breaks are essential. That is, top-end work activities require peak performance. In a competitive, technologically enhanced, global context, being a top performer requires a focused, intense, and sustained application of personal resources to challenging tasks. Generating creative ideas, translating those ideas into processes, and leading others in their implementation takes a lot of energy. This level of performance burns up physical, mental, and emotional energy.
No one can work at maximum capacity all the time. Everyone will back off, sooner rather than later. The cyclical nature of human energy is rather obvious from the fact that people are designed to spend at least a quarter if not a third of their day sleeping. Whether one systematically tracks circadian rhythms or monitors flow on a minute-to-minute basis, it becomes clear that people have peaks and valleys in their performance throughout a workday. The distribution of peaks and valleys may vary from time to time, but a peak is only a peak in relation to a valley. Some workdays bode poorly, as shown by this tweet in the early morning of 3 July 2012 : @kattherinealice: i am not going to be productive at all today #TooTired #WorkLife. Other days seem full of potential, generating hope for exceptional productivity.
But the basic message is: No one can sprint a marathon.
The challenge for an effective person is to manage those valleys to their best advantage. People often lose potential by taking a half-baked break, doodling around staring at a computer screen between bouts of intense work. They would be better served taking a complete break from the posture imposed by computer work. They would be better served changing their context by going for a walk or doing lunch or talking with someone about something unrelated to work. An energetic break is generally more effective than a passive break, especially when it switches people out of their work-oriented frame of reference.
Working without a break is tiring. The most direct impact is that people lose their concentration and become more distractible. Being distractible is a major problem in the contemporary work world where people can waste a lot of time doing marginally productive activities with information technology. Hours can while away while sorting emails and reviewing web sites. The time gained by skipping breaks is lost many times over in suboptimal work. The same mental slump leads to snacking half out of awareness. For example, devoting one’s full attention to meals produces a more positive relationship with food. Meal times are also an opportunity for social interaction that takes one out of the usual flow of things.
The next few posts will consider how workgroups can support effective recovery strategies that build team resiliency.