One of my colleagues used to head to the men’s room and brush his teeth every time he felt a surge of writer’s block. He swears it did the trick. Another exits the building and walks around the block to clear his head. I like to take advantage of the mid-day yoga sessions that Forbes offers in the gym on the ninth floor. When I return to my desk, my body is relaxed, my mind is clear, and I attack my work with new energy.
A growing body of research suggests that the longer you keep your rear end in your chair and your eyes glued to your screen, the less productive you may be. Getting up from your desk and moving not only heightens your powers of concentration, it enhances your health.
A story in Sunday’s New York Times quoted two sources who have studied productivity. John P. Trougakos, an assistant management professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management describes how concentrating on one task is like using one muscle for an extended period. The mind needs a break, to rest and recover before it can exert again. Among other things, Trougakos recommends that workers take serious lunch breaks, to recharge with food and a change of scene.
James A. Levine, a professor at the Mayo Clinic, agrees that we don’t take enough breaks. Sedentary work habits are as dangerous as a sedentary lifestyle at home. Levine likes the idea of your standing or even walking while you’re working, including during meetings. If you feel sleepy during the day, you should be allowed to take a nap, he says.
Levine suggests that you work in concentrated 15-minute periods, divided up by breaks. “The thought process is not designed to be continuous,” he tells the Times. He points out that efficient, productive work is much more valuable than long hours of wasted or partially productive time.
Then there is the power of daydreaming, described in science writer Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine. Many of our most creative, productive thoughts come not while we’re trying to force them during long sessions at our desks, but at odd moments outside the office. For instance, Lehrer describes how Dan Wieden of advertising giant Wieden+Kennedy found the inspiration for the famous Nike “Just Do It” tag line late one evening, after reflecting on a conversation he had had with a colleague about the novelist Norman Mailer, who had written a book about convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore’s last line before he was executed, “Let’s do it,” popped into Wieden’s head. Back at his desk, Wieden tweaked the phrase. But the idea had come in his off hours.
Many of us feel we shouldn’t waste time chatting with co-workers during the work day. But my colleague Andy Greenburg has written about research showing that talking with colleagues can increase your productivity. Specifically, a team of MIT researchers led by Professor Alexander “Sandy” Pentland discovered that call center workers who took the time to converse with their co-workers, instead of just grinding away, got through calls faster, felt less tension and earned the same approval ratings as their peers who didn’t schmooze at the office.
Finally, there is the increasing evidence for the importance of physically moving around during the day, and how it enhances productivity. My colleague Alison Griswold just wrote about Jack Groppel, a co-founder of a division of Johnson & Johnson called the Human Performance Institute. Groppel, who holds a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Florida State University, insists that stretching and walking around once every 30 minutes throughout the day stimulates blood flow and leads to a burst of hyper oxygenation in the brain, increasing energy and attentiveness.
After canvassing my colleagues, I offer this list of productive ways to goof off during the day and evening. They will boost your productivity and sense of well being. But beware not to overdo any of them. Take too many breaks and you may enter the realm of procrastination.
1. Take a walk around the block.
Fresh air combined with a change of scene can boost productivity.
2. Take a nap.
Some offices offer this as a perk. Closing your eyes for a 15-minute catnap can be hugely refreshing.
3. Chat with a colleague.
Even if you only make small talk, a fresh perspective on your day can help you get a new perspective on the task at hand.
4. Run an errand
Like walking around the block, getting out of the office and taking care of business can give your mind a break and the exercise will get your blood flowing.
5. Brush your teeth.
The symbolism of removing decay and plaque can be especially potent when you are feeling sluggish.
6. Spend ten minutes checking Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites.
This is not as good for you as leaving your desk, but the mental distraction can offer a helpful break. Monitor your time however and don’t let yourself be distracted for more than five minutes.
7. Go to the gym
If your company has an exercise facility, take advantage.
8. Go out to lunch
Judging from the habits of my colleagues, lunch out of the office is a dying American habit. But a healthy meal and good conversation can be nourishing on multiple levels.