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Enhance Your Productivity in 20 Minutes or Less: A “Smart Break” is the Key

By Peter McLaughlin

If you tend to feel “run down,” “burnt out,” or just plain tired by mid-afternoon, you’re not alone. Many studies show that people naturally experience a drop in energy and alertness around 3 p.m., when the body’s circadian rhythms take a plunge. Chronobiologists call this time of day “the breaking point.”

Unfortunately, many people attempt to get through this natural low time in unhealthy ways. They raid the office vending machines, believing that caffeinated beverages and sugary snacks will give them the energy they need. While the soda and candy does give them a short energy spurt, within an hour they often experience the “crash” and end up feeling more tired than they did initially. Even worse, they repeat this cycle daily.

Rather than succumb to the lure of the vending machine, consider taking a 10- to 20-minute “smart break”—a break that physiologically and psychologically rejuvenates you so you can refocus on your most important tasks. By doing so, you will feel more energized for the balance of the day, with a net gain to the overall quantity and quality of your work.

The smart break is smart for a number of reasons:

1.   It’s specially designed to give you a high-powered recovery period that recharges your physical energy, emotional balance, and mental focus.

2.   It affords a quick “attitude adjustment” interval, during which you can check your mental thermostat and consciously turn it a few notches to the positive.

3.   It’s a performance booster, enabling you to review your daily objectives, stay focused on key priorities, and make the last quarter or so of your work day as productive as possible.

Smart and Essential Components: A smart break has two important components: 1) A relaxation component, and 2) An energy boosting component.

The relaxation component is downtime. It includes activities like closing your eyes, deep breathing, or muscle relaxation. The goal here is for you to step back from the intense effort you’ve been exerting all day so you can de-activate, disengage, and totally relax for these few minutes (or few seconds, if that’s all you can spare).

In the energy boosting part of your break, you reactivate, reinvigorate, and prepare yourself for a productive afternoon of work. This segment is what makes the smart break a performance-enhancing tool. Instead of having your productivity steadily decline until you pack up for home, a smart break helps you access a higher level of functioning, where you’re firing on all cylinders. You’re refocused on your priorities and recommitted to a high-energy afternoon.

Practical Tips: So, what you can do during your smart break to trigger both the necessary components? The answer is that the break has to be simple and flexible enough to fit into your schedule and environment, but significant enough to revitalize your energy and performance levels. Following are examples of activities to include in your smart break:

  • If you’re tired (and if your environment is appropriate), lie down on the floor or put your head on your desk for a few minutes. Set an alarm clock for 15 minutes in case you fall asleep. Studies show that a short “cat nap” for 20 minutes or less re-energizes the brain and keeps people productive.

  • Switch to a less demanding activity to give your brain a rest. Read the paper, listen to music, check e-mail, etc. Especially if you’re involved in a creative or thinking-intensive task, momentarily switching to something mundane activates a new part of your brain, which triggers alertness.

  • Go for a brief, brisk walk. A 10-15 minute walk gets your heart pumping and your blood circulating, giving much needed oxygen to your brain. If you can’t get away for a walk, then get up from your desk and do some light stretching, or at least check your posture and straighten up.

  • Eat a light, healthy snack. Avoid sugary or fried foods. Fruit, nuts, or cheese are smart options for mid-day snacking.

  • Drink a glass of water or decaffeinated tea. Caffeine will actually dehydrate you, causing you to feel tired.

  • Do a deep-breathing exercise, which will quiet and clear your mind.

  • Seek out something humorous, but be careful not to spend the rest of your day there. Laughter releases brain chemicals that relax us and make us feel good.

  • Check your daily plans and priorities to make sure you’re focused on what you need to complete today. If you’re not making progress on your daily objectives, make a plan to get back on track immediately.

  • Check your attitude; make it energized, relaxed, focused, and fun. You are what you think. If you constantly tell yourself, “I’m tired,” then you will feel tired. But if you tell yourself, “I feel energized and ready to finish the day with a bang,” then you will.

  • Commit to finishing the day strong, with a flourish of productive activity.

While you can do any combination of items on this list (and can likely think of more things to add) the last three items are non-negotiable. You have to do these to make the smart break work for you.

Ideally, your smart break should last 10-20 minutes. That’s what experts say gives your body and brain an optimal period of rejuvenation. Now, reality dictates that many afternoons you don’t have 5 minutes to slow down, much less 20. However, even if you’re blazing around at 100 miles per hour, you can have an “on-the-fly” break that consists of taking a couple deep breaths, straightening your posture, reviewing your priorities, and committing to finish the day strong.

Take a Smart Break Today: To experience the benefits of your smart break, you have to take it. Schedule it and make it automatic. Think of it as a “productivity break” if that makes you feel better about not working for a few minutes. Tell yourself, “The fourth quarter is mine”…and it will be!

Read other articles and learn more about Peter McLaughlin.

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