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.