Rethink your breaks

Rethink your breaks

Mental power with Folef Bredt. Take five: Folef Bredt explains why multitasking doesn’t work and the best way to stay fresh throughout the day.

After months of working remotely, we’re all feeling the impact. How do we keep going? In a new blog series, Folef Bredt, founder of ING’s wellbeing partner Lifeguard, talks about strategies to stay positive and to keep your batteries charged. First stop: rethink your breaks!

Downtime is more important than ever” – Folef Bredt

My first piece of advice to keep going during the pandemic, is to prioritise and improve your breaks. Develop a strategy for them, because downtime is more important than ever!

Before Covid-19, it was much easier to get the downtime we needed, because we already had natural ‘nudges’ built into our day. Think of the time between meetings, chats at the coffee machine, or a short walk with colleagues after lunch.

The daily commute – often associated with stressful traffic jams — was also a wonderful institutionalised break. The way to work was an opportunity to prepare mentally for the day ahead, and the way home was a chance to reflect on what had happened that day.

Now that most of us work from home, those nudges are gone. Our work and private lives are fully entwined, making it harder to set boundaries and get the downtime our brains and bodies need.

Always being ‘on’ brings a mix of cognitive, physical and emotional stress. One minute you’re helping your child with homework, the next you’re arguing with a teenager to turn down the music. Then the doorbell rings with a package for a neighbour and you’re signing into Teams for your sixth virtual meeting of the day.

Stop after 90 minutes (or sooner)

So, now what? The best way to recover from your working day is, of course, a good night’s rest. But even if you’re a talented sleeper, you still need to take structural breaks to make it to the end of the day without exhaustion kicking in.

In general, if you’re doing a mentally demanding task, your performance (and mood) will start to decline after 45 to 90 minutes. That’s why I suggest taking a break after a maximum of 90 minutes – or earlier if you feel you need to. If you’re experiencing excessive mental demands or emotional stress, then increase and upgrade your downtime throughout the day.

Power nap or playing the piano?

These are, of course, general guidelines. The most important rule is to be aware of your energy levels and of what your body and your brain need. Then design your day so you get enough breaks — and the right kind of breaks.

Power naps are great for both physical and mental recovery. When you only have a few minutes to recharge, just close your eyes or stare out of the window and let your mind wander, maybe with relaxing music in the background. It’s an easy way to free up mental space.

At other times, you might need an emotional break, for example if you’re feeling anxious or angry. In these situations, a short, high-intensity workout can do wonders, instantly triggering the release of powerful happy chemicals in your brain.

Need a day off? Take two.

If you think you need a day off to recharge your batteries, that’s sending a strong signal. Let your manager know. And if I were them, I’d tell you to take off two days instead of one. Make time on the second day to reflect on your recovery strategy.

If you manage a team, you play a vital role here. Nudge your team members to reflect on and prioritise their recovery. If you struggle with stress yourself, be open about it and share your experience with your team. This will create psychological safety for others to speak up too. Check in regularly with your team members, be interested in their wellbeing and dig deeper than just asking how they’re doing. It will give you a better sense of their energy levels.

Another great and simple thing you can do as a manager is to introduce new meeting habits. Schedule meetings for an hour, but end them after 45 minutes. This will create a window for recovery and give everyone a break before their next meeting or task. They’ll love it.

Give me a break: Folef’s tips

  • Take a break at least every 90 minutes
  • Need to recharge physically? Take a nap or have a healthy snack.
  • Need to recharge emotionally? Do something that makes you happy or exercise.
  • Need to recharge mentally? Do nothing for at least five minutes, let your mind wander.
  • Is your mind running in circles? Try an active relaxation technique: meditation, yoga, mindfulness, anything will do.
  • Need a day off? Take two or more, and rethink your recovery strategy.
  • Meeting fatigue? Stop 15 minutes early.
  • Put breaks in your calendar and treat them as a meeting with your most important client.

Repaying a Short-Term Sleep Debt on the Weekend.

How do you pay back a short-term sleep debt that you have accumulated during the previous week? Short answer: it all depends on how much sleep debt you have accumulated over the past week.

Repaying Your Sleep Debt

In general, your body is incredibly good at making up for a short-term sleep loss, if you just have one night of short sleep. If you get only got 4,5 hours of sleep on one night, your body can fully recover the next night if you sleep for a solid 9 hours. That night you will not only sleep longer, you will also spend more time in high quality non-REM and REM sleep to make up for the previous night. And even if you only get 7,5 hours of sleep that night, chances are high that you will make up for the night before, simply because the amount and type of sleep you get (both non-REM and REM) are influenced by the sleep you got the previous night.

However, when you accumulate a sleep debt over the course of the week your body and brain will not be able to fully recover without extra hours of sleep during the weekend.

Minor Sleep Debts

If the total sleep debt that you have accumulated over the precious week is less than three hours, the easiest way to repay it, is to sleep in for 90 minutes on both days of the weekend. Alternatively, you can get up at your regular time and choose to have a siesta of 90 minutes after lunch on both days of the weekend.

If your sleep debt was more than three hours you will need to build in more time for sleep during the weekend.

For instance, if the total sleep debt that you have accumulated over of the precious week is three to six hours, the easiest way is to repay it, is to sleep in for 90 minutes on both days of the weekend and have a siesta of 90 minutes on both days of the weekend.

N.B. Don’t think that sleeping in longer than 90 minutes will help you to repay more of your sleep debt. While sleeping longer will increase your chances of getting some extra REM sleep, it will not help you get more restorative deep sleep. Furthermore, especially when you sleep in on both days of the weekend, it may shift your biological clock backwards which can make it much harder to fall asleep at your regular bedtime on Sunday evening; depriving you of the much-needed sleep before the work week begins.

In short: sleeping in is good, but don’t overdo it!

Major Sleep Debts

If you have accumulated a sleep debt of six to nine hours it’s good to realize that you have missed an entire night of sleep, and that this will have had significant impact on your performance during the previous week. To make up for this kind of sleep debt you will need to top-prioritize sleep on the weekend. The only way you will be able to fully repay your outstanding sleep debt is by combining different strategies. Ideally you (1) go to bed earlier, (2) sleep in longer than you normally do and (3) take restorative naps. Maybe this sounds too much and chances are that you simply won’t be able to do all of it, but it’s good to realize that this is what you would actually need to fully repay your outstanding sleep debt and start with a fresh body and brain the next week.

Finally, when you have accumulated a sleep debt of more than nine hours in the previous week, you will have to accept that you will NOT be able too fully recover on the weekend. You simply need more time to do so. While sleep efficiency varies significantly between individuals, you will probably need to sleep at least three extra hours on both days of the weekend and an extra hour on the first days of the next week (or an extra half hour on all days of the week). This may seem highly impractical, but is what you need if you want to perform at your best ability.

The Power of Naps

There are two types of naps, power naps and restorative naps. Power naps can be highly beneficial to your mood and executive functions, boosting your focus and creativity for a few hours. However, they are not effective at repaying an outstanding sleep debt. Longer naps, which are called restorative naps (90 minutes) will help you catch up on missed sleep.

By combining restorative naps in the early afternoon with sleeping in for a max of 90 minutes on both days of the weekend, it’s possible to repay more than six hours of an outstanding sleep debt in one weekend. Maybe not enough, if you structurally sleep too little, but in many cases an effective strategy to recover sufficiently and start fresh the next week.

Daily Activities

How long you need exactly to repay a sleep debt that you accumulated in the previous week also depends on what you are doing throughout the day. Many things, such as consumption of alcohol or caffeine can have a negative influence on time and quality of your sleep and thus make it much harder to catch up on missed sleep. Other behaviors will have a positive impact on your sleep; exercise for example can help you to get more deep sleep and repay your sleep debt faster!

Beware: If you continue to sleep too little during the week and catch up in the weekends, you might have repaid your debt. However, because you keep falling short during the week, your health (credit rating) will suffer in the long run.

Making up for a Long-Term Sleep Debt

When you haven’t been getting the sleep you need for a longer period of time (weeks, months or years), your body and brain suffer in a variety of ways, which without a doubt will have a negative impact on your performance, as well as your Wellbeing. The good news is that you will not have to make up for each and every one of those hours to repay your sleep debt. It will however take much longer to fully recover; think weeks, not days. Many people who sleep too little during the year recognize this when they go on a long vacation in the summer. After two weeks of sleeping without an alarm clock, often sleeping for ten or more hours per night, they finally start to wake up fully rested. The trick here is obviously to avoid backsliding into a new sleep debt cycle.

Calculate Your Sleep Debt

In order to calculate your sleep debt, you first need to know how much sleep you need. While the vast majority of people need between 7 – 9 hours, it may be less or more for you. To figure out how much sleep your body needs, I offer the ‘vacation solution’. Allow yourself to wake up naturally for two weeks, in a relaxed period of time; you can then calculate your baseline sleep need.

Improve the Quality of Your Sleep

Once you know how much sleep you need to wake up fully refreshed, then prioritize it and factor it into your daily schedule. And if you need any tips on how to get the most out of your time spent in bed, then check out the advice on ‘How to Sleep Like a Baby‘.