It’s one of the things we confuse the most. And while most of us recognise the importance of one over the other, it’s rare to see people follow that belief all the way.
I’m referring to the famous quality over quantity rule. While there will be exceptions to every belief, most follow the same opinion that quality outweighs quantity. If we think about it, it often makes genuine sense — why not invest in the long-term when we can?
However, that exact question — and the overall question of investment itself — is one many businesses take great pains to answer. But that’s understandable, especially when we’re given deadlines (who isn’t?). We’re pressured, whether by ourselves or by others, to get something done in a certain time. So, depending on our other tasks we’ll often focus on getting what we have to do on time rather than perfectly.
Yes, we can also argue the notion of time — we can all work more than 8 hours a day (or however many hours your country dictates) but that’s where we suddenly show a greater investment in quantity over quality.
The mind wasn’t built to work 8 consecutive hours, let alone 2. Sure, we can do it, and some will certainly do it better than others, but to what sacrifice?
Some researchers found that the US economy loses $178 billion a year from people using social networking sites while at the office. Another study found that companies lose on average $5,000 per employee a year due to the same non-work-related Internet use. Put that way, it does seem like “Facebook breaks” are quite a waste of money, specially in such hard financial times.
But what that amount doesn’t consider is how productive these breaks make employees.
“Mental concentration is similar to a muscle,” John P. Trougakos told the New York Times in 2012. Mr. Trougakos is an assistant management professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management; he explains that the mind can become, “fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover.” Much like athletes will need breaks in order to relax their muscles, business people working in offices will need to rest their most utilised muscles too.
We often associate persistence with problem solving. While that might be correct, the definition of persistence must be reviewed for some. For a problem to be solved, a certain level of persistence must be demanded, but that means not forgetting about the project rather than working on it tirelessly until it can be solved. (The idea of quality vs. quantity comes back here) In his book entitled “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Jonah Lehrer speaks about the importance of distancing oneself from a problem to later be able to solve it. He writes,
“When you don’t feel that you’re getting closer to the answer—you’ve hit the wall, so to speak—you probably need an insight. In these instances, you should rely on the right hemisphere, which excels at revealing those remote associations. Continuing to focus on the problem will be a waste of mental resources, a squandering of the prefrontal cortex. You will stare at your computer screen and repeat your failures. Instead, find a way to relax and increase the alpha waves. The most productive thing to do is forget about work.”
Different researchers will recommend different variations to the term “break” but all will generally agree that taking a break from something which is repeated often, can have strong benefits to our productivity.
The idea of taking breaks is even reflected in one of the most important principles of economics: the law of diminishing returns. It states that if we increase an input (eg: hours of uninterrupted concentration) while all other inputs stay fixed (hours in the workday / number of breaks taken / etc.) then we will reach a point where each additional input (hours) yields smaller or diminishing increases in output (the work you produce).
(You may have noticed, it’s a complex way to explain the quality over quantity rule)
Potential ways of taking a break include: chatting with colleagues, surfing the web (though the eyes need a break too, so try to stay away from a screen), going for a walk or a run, taking a nap (not a joke), reading a book, eating lunch out (or simply outside), or taking a vacation. (Don’t just take my word for it: X, X, X, X, X)
Now that we understand the value of breaks associated with productivity we now need to execute a break-friendly work atmosphere. That’s the hard part.
As Mr. Trougakos highlights, breaks can generate guilt as they’re “this little oasis of personal time that we get while we’re selling ourselves to someone else”.
We often say that a good CEO is one that surrounds himself with people smarter than himself. The way I see it is you surround yourself with people who are good at what they do, and your role is to manage them well. To a certain extent, the same can be said for other levels of management. As a manager, regardless of ranking, your main duty is as your title suggests: to manage. It therefore goes without saying that a manager’s main responsibility is being able to manage a team successfully.
We tend to forget that characteristic when promoting employees to management roles. We want to reward people’s skills and expertise in a certain field so we raise them in the ranks when in fact we should be looking for those qualified at being leaders, which is much more than a complementary skill.
Getting back to our original topic, a good manager will appreciate the importance of various tools which make employees more productive, one of them being breaks.
Breaks are an essential part to our daily life, much like work is. Nothing which is produced or consumed with exaggeration ever yields high quality consistently. The same goes to breaks; we shouldn’t mistaken quick interruptions with long periods of idleness — that would be counterproductive.
We should all take breaks, regardless of what we do in life, even if it’s for the sake of appreciating what we have. However, breaks should be small interruptions to help us regain focus later, not make us lazy.
Question is, when does a break become too long? Tell me in the comments below
If you liked this article, you’ll also like: