Let’s start with a simple question: How do you train to reach top performance in sports? Ambitious hobby athletes and pros follow a strict training plan, which, if you simplify it, consists of four main parts: physical training, recovery, nutrition and mental training. Outstanding performance can’t be reached without considering and planning for all four.
One of the most underestimated aspects is recovery. And this underestimation goes far beyond the area of sports. In business it is even worse. Most of us try to get our job done as fast as possible and consider breaks at work as wasted time. We tend to squeeze everything into our work schedule and, if necessary, replace breaks with a quick meeting to get even more done. But in fact, the opposite is the case.
Taking a break at work is the best investment into your personal performance and the results you deliver.
The sports science behind taking a break
In sports science theory, a striking term is ‘Supercompensation’. This is the phenomenon of what happens to our body during and after physical training. During recovery, our muscles reach an even higher performance capacity than they had before the training stimulus as shown in the sketch below. If we then set the next training stimulus when our performance potential is at its peak point, followed by proper rest and continue with that rhythm, our physical performance will improve.
If we train too hard or don’t take enough time to recover, our performance can go down as well.
This is why fitness guru and EXOS Founder Mark Verstegen always says: “Work plus rest equals performance.” This formula is equally true for our work life and the reason why you should re-think the way you tackle and structure your work day if you want to be a top performer in your professional life, too.
Our brain’s MVP
Have you ever tried to focus on a pressing task at work and are unable to come up with any creative idea or make any progress no matter how hard you try? That’s because your brain was tired and simply not able to generate an aha-moment anymore. What do we tend to do when the clock is ticking? Try even harder and work even longer to get this task done in time. You might meet the deadline, but nine times out of ten the quality of your output will be lacking.
If we zoom in even more, we will realize that the MVP inside our brain is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which sits right behind our forehead.
The most important job of the PFC is goal management. It is responsible for taking decisions and balancing thoughts and actions based on our internal goals. It keeps us focused on our goals and keeps up concentration at work. Right behind our forehead lies the brain area that makes sure that we get our stuff done.
Imagine the following situation: My plan is to go for a run in the morning. In that case my prefrontal cortex will make sure that I execute every step needed to go for a run without being sidetracked: having breakfast, dressing properly, lacing my running shoes, leaving the house, going for a run.
This executive function is the basis for anything else (like creative thoughts, memory, etc.) and the reason why the prefrontal cortex is the most valuable player in our brain game at work, too. Now other areas of the brain are kicking in and generating creative ideas, making sure we remember things and so on and so on. Our brain is fresh and running at full steam. Perfect!
But our brain and the PFC can also get tired. So, it’s on us to refresh our thinking machine regularly to stay ahead of the game.
Come on, thinkers, have a break!
Like your muscles that recover after physical exercise, our brain recuperates when taking some downtime. Here are three key areas of improvement when taking a mental break.
According to Roy F. Baumeister, decision fatigue kicks in when having made a lot of decisions during the day already. Willpower and self-control decrease, and you don’t care that much anymore. It’s more likely that we take wrong decisions, can’t keep focus and face a lack of concentration. In short: we aren’t on top of our productivity game anymore. That’s why we should schedule important meetings in the morning or have a refreshing break before to ensure a fit prefrontal cortex to take the best decisions.
Same goes for tasks that require our attention for a prolonged period. The PFC has to do heavy work to make sure we keep our goal in sight. Even though the PFC gives it its all, a study from the University of Illinois shows that switching off for a short break keeps us on track and prevents us from making mistakes.
David Burkus from Harvard Business Review states: “Many of the most productive creative people intentionally set a project aside and take a physical break from their work believing that this incubation stage is where ideas begin to come together below the threshold of the conscious mind.”
Make sure that you don’t get stuck in a creative block and waste your time trying even harder. Instead change tasks and work on something else before returning to your previous task. Often, the best ideas come after taking a mental break. Hello, lightbulb moment!
Only one night left before your important presentation in front of a group of decision-makers or the most important exam of the year? It’s full steam ahead and your learning marathon mode on! Wrong! This strategy will get you nowhere. Studies have shown that long hours studying without taking regular breaks will have the opposite effect. Not only does your learning capacity decrease, it can cause serious health problems. Make sure that to plan in breaks and use the time that you have in the most effective way.
Downtime for success
Whether you want to nail the next big project at work or your first marathon, approach it with a professional mindset making breaks as important as training, nutrition and coaching for better results.
So, the need to give your brain downtime is clear, but do you to take the right breaks at work?