Want to Get More Done? Know the No. 1 Productivity Tip

Research shows that frequent breaks boost energy levels and increase performance.
January 20, 2015

The most effective way to get more done is to spend less time doing it, says Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, a New York-based company with a mission to change the way the world works.

“If you’re not creating space for renewal and refueling, it’s like driving a Formula 1 car around a track and thinking that you’re going to win by being the person who drove the fastest for the longest the most continuously,” Schwartz says. “That’s not even true for a car. If you don’t make strategic pit stops to deal with the emptiness of your gas tank and the wear done to your tires, you’re not going to win the race.”

The author of Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys To Transforming the Way We Work and Live, Schwartz cites a growing body of multidisciplinary research that shows strategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office, and longer, more frequent vacations—significantly boosts workplace productivity.

The more-is-better, machine-driven mantra spawned by the Industrial Revolution remains prevalent in many organizations today even as computer technology has exponentially accelerated the pace of information and function. But humans are not machines that can grind away without renewing the energy they expend, Schwartz explains.

Changing the Mindset

Schwartz cites the work of Florida State University’s K. Anders Ericsson as being a game changer in this subject area. Ericsson’s research of high-performance individuals, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players, found that elite performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes.

“To maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis,” Ericsson concluded. These elite producers begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than 4½ hours in any given day.

Schwartz notes that the body regularly sends signals it needs a break during these intervals, but a person often overrides those signals, depending on caffeine, sugar and the body’s emergency reserves—the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol—to mask the need.

“The key is to prioritize your most important work and do it when you have the most energy,” Schwartz says. “You also must evaluate the value of how you feel when you’re working even more than how many hours you put in.”

Recently the Draugiem Group, a social networking company, used its time-tracking productivity app DeskTime to follow the habits of its employees. Draugiem found the top 10 percent of its most productive people didn’t log more hours than other employees. “The most productive employees didn’t work full eight-hour days, and they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work with intense purpose, allowing their brains time to rejuvenate and prepare for the next work period,” the company reported.

The 52-minute clock time is not as important as being self-aware of how much we can do and when we need a break, says Susan Fletcher, Ph.D., a Texas psychologist and author of Working in the Smart Zone: Smart Strategies to Be a Top Performer at Work and at Home .

“We have to pay attention to our energy levels just like we have to pay attention to when we’re hungry, when we need to go to the rest room and so on,” she says. “We have to have such good self-awareness—cognitively, physically and emotionally—that we do what works best for us.”

Nurturing Brain Function

Prevalent research also confirms that being a multitasker decreases productivity, Fletcher says. “It’s important to find cognitive emotional white space as an alternative to being a multitasker. It increases productivity.”

There’s only so much that a brain can take in, Schwartz notes. “In fact, it’s surprisingly little at any given time that you’re capable of understanding in the moment, let alone retaining. If you multiply that by five, 50, 500, you really are essentially trying to pour water into a full glass. Whatever is already in there is going to spill out. You might get something new in, but you’re going to lose something in the process. The remedy is not doing more things for longer, but to the contrary, and that’s why finding that white space is important. Manage your energy such that you occasionally empty the tank so that there’s room for more stuff to come in.”

The normal stress of the day is not the enemy, Schwartz says. “Stress is something you need to expand functional capacity. If you want to build the biceps, you stress the muscle. If you don’t recover after stressing the biceps and you keep stressing it, then it breaks down. On the other hand, if you don’t stress the muscle enough, there is no increase in strength. At the end of four weeks, you can be weaker. Too much stress or too little stress is equally costly. It’s really this shift to understanding that we are physiologically designed to pause, and when we do, we are healthier, and we don’t get sick.”

People often mistake the productivity process as merely one of managing time better. “All these apps we can use, all the bells and whistles that can go off to tell us what to do, that really isn’t the key,” Fletcher says, “I always say that time management is for rookies. That’s a place to start. But the place to focus on is our attention and energy, because some things give us energy and some things suck us dry.”

Balancing Our Energy Needs

Schwartz has long advocated that people are at their best when they move between expending energy and intermittently renewing their four energy needs: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

Stepping away from one task to another doesn’t buy renewal time, he says. “Working on a difficult project for an hour and a half and then answering your email isn’t a break. What you’re looking for are forms of renewal that restore you, make you feel refreshed.”

There isn’t one formula for that process. “It’s very personal,” Schwartz says. “All you have to do is ask yourself the question, How is it that I feel when I’m at my best? Most people answer that question, saying, I feel happy, engaged, excited, focused, in the zone. Exactly. When you notice that you’re not feeling that way, you need to be in renewal.”

It’s critical to learn to be aware of how you’re feeling because you can’t change what you don’t notice, he says.

“If you’re sitting, stand. If you’re standing, sit. If you’re inside, go outside. If you’re in artificial light, seek out natural light. That’s why renewal can be either active or passive. If you’re sedentary, it’s an especially good renewal to move, whether that means taking a walk or going up and down stairs or doing some sort of more strenuous physical activity. What the physical movement does is it quiets the mind and calms the emotions, and that’s a very valuable source of renewal. Passive renewal is you go quiet. You meditate. You breathe. You make a phone call to somebody you love. You take a nap. You do a very gentle form of yoga.”

Taking a break in the middle of the day to do something that gets everything flowing better increases productivity for a lot of people, Fletcher says.

“The purpose of your exercise is different than just getting it in during the morning or at night,” she notes. “Many people start to remember things they forgot throughout the day when they go to bed at night. That’s because there is less competition for thought at that point. But if you work out in the middle of the day—even if it’s just a walk by yourself—that allows the reflection process to happen when it can be more productive. You also can schedule creative time or just reading or working on your to-do list for the week. These things won’t happen by default.”

The simple task of preparing ahead of time for meetings instead of waiting until the last minute can greatly increase how productive we are, Fletcher notes. “You need some bullet points. The preparation determines how successful you’re going to be.” She also urges arriving a few minutes early to let your brain settle.

A to-do list can obviously be a valuable tool, Fletcher says, but “if you have one big long list—and this is old Stephen Covey stuff—you’re more reminded of what you haven’t finished compared to what you have. Map out your to-do list over a week’s time. Thursday may be a better day to return phone calls than trying to squeeze them in on days where you have more activities.”

And although some people take on the easiest tasks on their list to build momentum and to start checking things off quickly, Fletcher notes that research indicates that tackling the toughest thing first “helps you feel powerful in a productive way.”

Likewise, she avoids a recap of the day but instead considers what needs to happen tomorrow. “Move some unfinished tasks to tomorrow, but it’s not productive to get bogged down in what didn’t happen.”

The idea of a daytime nap might be at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies, where downtime is typically viewed as time wasted, but University of California, Riverside, professor Sara C. Mednick’s research in the science of napping shows that a midday shut-eye can help cognitive functions, problem-solving, perceptual learning and verbal memory. Her studies also found that a 60- to 90-minute nap improved memory test results as fully as did eight hours of sleep.

Outside the Office Box

There are critical, if not sometimes obvious, steps in the renewal process outside the office that can boost performance as well. A Harvard study published in 2011 estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.

“If you were going to change one single behavior in your life to be more productive for the vast majority of the population, it would be to sleep more,” Schwartz says.

Fletcher also urges clients to spend some time alone, whether it’s driving to work or traveling. “Get rid of all the chatter,” she says. “Be comfortable with your own company because that’s when you really get in tune with what’s important. If we cannot center ourselves, we start to carry out other people’s agendas rather than our own.

“We have to unplug big time. We rely too much on being accessible. As a clinician, I’ve had to tell people to take Facebook off the phone, because they will complain about how they’re not productive but immediately start talking about their Facebook page. We rely too much on that. It gives us a sense of camaraderie, but it’s at the expense of [live] camaraderie that’s a lot healthier. It’s a different part of the brain. We need to be deliberate about those things.”

The most important thing we can do for our well-being is to pursue things we enjoy, Schwartz says. “That’s emotional renewal. That’s not physical renewal, although it sometimes can be. If you think about it, what is resilience? Resilience is the ability to bounce back quickly from some form of adversity. You’re more resilient when you have more positive emotions in the tank, so that when something bad happens it doesn’t put you in a complete abject despair and emptiness. You have enough in the tank to bounce back.”

Take Those Vacation Days

Getting away from the office and completely disconnecting from it is critical, both Schwartz and Fletcher note. In 2006 the accounting firm Ernst & Young did an internal study of its 50,000 employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation taken, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of 1 to 5) improved by 8 percent. Yet a Harris Interactive survey found that Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012—up from 6.2 days in 2011.

“I think deferring vacation has actually gotten worse, because in the aftermath of the last recession, I think people were terrified to take vacations because they assumed their jobs might be gone if they left,” Schwartz says. “The digital world has made people feel that somehow they can’t disconnect even when they go on vacation, and that they certainly can’t go away for very long.”

The Energy Project keeps pushing the envelope with its employees to determine the optimal balance between work and vacation, Schwartz says. “The company offers all employees in their first year five weeks of vacation, in their second year six weeks of vacation, and in their fifth year seven weeks of vacation,” he says. “If we assess it from the bottom line, we’ve had spectacular growth that’s kept increasing even as we’ve added more time off for people.”

For years The Energy Project had worked at the individual level to teach people strategies and an understanding of this energy-versus-time idea, Schwartz says. “We got fooled into believing that because people loved it, it meant that it was changing both the way they worked and, more importantly, the way organizations worked,” he says. “What we eventually discovered is they love it, but they can’t do it because the organization resists. When we go in today, we tell organizations right from the start, if you only want us to train individuals to get better at this, we’ll do it, but it won’t change the problem. It’s classic: You are pulling the weed, but the weed has still got roots way deeper; it’s just going to sprout back up in no time.”

The biggest step in taking control of productivity is the first one. So start your engine: Just know when to put on the brakes, refuel and find that checkered flag.

Check out 6 productivity tips from people who get things done, like Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer. 

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