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Want to get more work done? Have a break

Workaholicism is endemic. Now that is feasible to work any hour of the day or night, people do. It has a kind of piety about it, but there’s a high price to pay in terms of stress, personal life and health. In Japan, it’s reached the point where coroners sometimes record a verdict of Karoshi (death from overwork).

You can do twice as work in two hours as in one hour, but not ten times as much in ten hours, unless you take breaks. The more consecutive hours you work, the less productive each hour will become. Yet incessant work is seen as a virtue, like the old hair shirt. One in four works over 48 hours a week, one in ten over 55 hours, and one in 25 over 60 hours. TUC general secretary, John Monks, calls this a national disgrace, bringing in its wake, stress, ill health and family strains.

The pendulum is beginning to swing back, in some cases to the far side. In Vechta, near Hamburg, civil servants are encouraged to doze for 20 minutes after lunch. Gould Evans Goodman, a company in Kansas City, provides “spent tents,” complete with sleeping bags and alarm clocks, for worn out associates.

Alan Hedge, or Cornell University, has found that even microbreaks, long enough for a stretch and a wriggle, will help. He set up software to flash a reminder on the screen when it was time to pause. Productivity improved by 13%.

Dr Ernest Rossi advocates 20-minute breaks every two hours or so. He has identified ‘ultradian cycles,’ where we peak and trough over about a two-hour period. We can work through our troughs, but it makes more sense to work at our peaks, and use our troughs to refresh ourselves, or change to a different type of work. We can check our emails, weed the garden, or sit and look vacant. Whatever we choose to do, it’s important to have breaks.

It’s not just a question of getting tired. We can only pay attention to one thing for so long before the mind goes sluggish. We can still perform, hour after hour, but we’ll become more and more robotic as the hours wear on. It won’t do in this age of constant innovation. Walt Disney, who needed constant creativity from his workforce, said, "I don't care if you're loafing. Everybody gets tired. If you feel stale, get some fresh air. But don't let me catch you jumping back to your desks."

It’s about time management, stress management and work-life balance.

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