American culture doesn’t value rest nearly enough. Our work ethic, passed down from the no-nonsense Puritans who landed on our shores in the 17th century, equates a busy life with a good life. Many of us feel that taking a break from our never-ending to-do list will kill the prolific productivity that we’ve come to worship.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a little laziness is essential to your productivity.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Work smarter, not harder.” Well, incorporating adequate breaks into your daily routine is the embodiment of this. Let’s look at the science of why this is true.
Your brain isn’t built for the hours of sustained focus that often mark the typical workday. As time goes on, we experience what researchers call “vigilance decrement,” which is the drop in our ability to concentrate as we focus for long periods of time. Instead, we’re wired to “deactivate and reactivate, as University of Illinois psychology professor, Alejandro Lleras, explains. “It is best to impose brief breaks on yourself,” he says. “Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
Think about it: have you ever noticed that you eventually stop hearing, smelling, or feeling something that you’re around all the time? For example, you probably weren’t aware of the feel of your clothes against your skin until you read this sentence. Likewise, you’ll find it more and more difficult to fully focus on your work as time wears on.
This happens because our brains have developed to focus on change, but deactivating and reactivating a task can shock us back into attentiveness, helping us become productive once more.
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice,” says essayist Tim Kreider. “It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets…It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
So what can you do to switch things up and take advantage of the power of laziness?
Let’s find out.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed in the 1980s, and it breaks work down into 25-minute intervals called pomodoros—the kitchen timer used by the inventor of the method.
To do this, set your own timer for 25 minutes, and simply work until time runs out. Once you reach your time limit, put a check mark down on a piece of paper. If you have fewer than four checks, take a 3-5 minute break. After four checks, however, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes and reset your check marks.
This technique takes full advantage of your brain’s preference for novelty, switching things up before you have the chance to lose focus. Whether you’re at work or engaged in your hobby of choice, this is a great way to eliminate burnout and ensure your productivity through the power of rest.
The 90-Minute Stretch
If working a little longer between breaks is more your style, focusing in 90-minute blocks is an old favorite of productivity gurus.
First discovered by sleep researchers, William Dement and Nathan Kleitman, our brains cycle through 90-minute patterns of lower and higher levels of alertness. Dement and Kleitman found that top performers practiced in sessions no longer than this, avoiding exhaustion and maximizing attentiveness.
Between these 90-minute work sessions, quiet your mind and relax your body. If you’re into meditation, this is a great time for a 15-minute meditative break as you close your eyes and allow your thoughts to rest only on your breathing.
A leisurely walk can do wonders as a form of rest, and can enhance your creativity even as you relax.
Researchers have found that walking boosts blood flow to the brain, leading 81 percent of one study’s participants to score higher for creativity after walking.
The biggest gains occurred when participants walked outside, so be sure to get out of the house or office building for a stroll every now and then—your work will noticeably improve, and you’ll improve your fitness level, as well.
Look at Something Cute
It turns out that looking at all those cute cat galleries really is good for you. Studies have shown a fascinating correlation between work performance and the positive feelings gleaned from looking at cute animals.
If you’re feeling stressed and mentally blocked at work, it might be time to take a trip to the break room and find that video of the baby koala who loves hugs, or one of the infinite collections of kitten images that float about the internet.
Although the mechanism behind this effect remains mysterious, subjects exposed to cuteness committed far fewer errors during their assigned tasks than did the control group. Researchers think this may be because cute images activate our desire to care for our young, which makes us more attentive.
Whatever the reason, it’s always a good time to look at cute animals, so be sure to try this one out regularly.
Goof Off Online
You read that correctly—our final tip for increasing your productivity is to goof off on Facebook.
Web browsing, according to one study, is just as productive as any other kind of break, and is actually better than texting and engaging in phone conversations. In the study, those who took a break by surfing the web were more productive than those who rested without internet connectivity.
These aimless breaks refresh workers, helping them to disengage for a moment so that, by the time they return to their work, their minds are ready to re-focus.
It turns out that the natural instinct of millions of workers hasn’t been wrong all along.
Rest Your Way to Success
Don’t feel guilty about being a little lazy. If you can fit a few more breaks into your day, you’ll actually do a much better job on your tasks, bringing greater value to your employer, your family, and yourself. You’ll work faster, more accurately, and what’s just as important, you’ll simply feel better.
Don’t let yourself fall to the cult of overwork. Take a break, and loaf your way to success.