How not working can make you more productive

How many breaks have you taken today? We hear it all the time: taking breaks is important. For some hard-working individuals though, this seems very counter-intuitive. How can not working give you more results? Since increased stress and trouble to “switch off” has been a huge issue for many of us right now, I wanted to highlight how taking a break can help you in the short, medium and long term:

Short term

A study presented in 2011 gives an interesting insight into our productivity with and without breaks. The premise of the experiment was based on the fact that, if we perceive something for a longer time (like feeling our clothes on our skin), the sensation starts to disappear. The question was if this same thing would happen with a task that needed to be executed for 50 minutes. Basically, the outcome was that the group that took two short breaks in that 50-minute period saw no decrease in performance, while all other groups did see significant decrease!

This illustrates how you can see the effects of taking breaks within hours!

Medium term 

The “Eureka!” moment is a big trope in stories. When you daydream, your mind actually starts to be more active! Taking a break allows your mind to switch from “focused mode” to “diffuse mode”, which our brain uses to solve difficult, new problems. Focusing blocks your mind from going into diffuse mode, so trying to focus all the time might hurt your ability to problem-solve.

For this reason, I’m a firm believer in spreading a more creative or complicated task over at least two days, if I can. I had been working on my January piece for Netherrealms for a couple days (a few hours at a time), and I was struggling with the composition and the space I needed to give the being in the sky enough room. 

Until that point, the image was still portrait oriented. Until one morning, when I was taking a shower and it suddenly hit me: flipping the image to landscape orientation would solve my problem! Stepping away from the image for a couple days and letting it sit allowed my subconscious to work on the problem, and when I came back to it, I was able to solve it. This wouldn’t have happened if I would’ve tried to finish the image in a hurry.

Long term (like, your whole career)

When you think about your job/side hustle, how long do you think you can actually keep up with the tempo you’re working at now? Do you see yourself working at the same pace 5 years from now? How about 20 years from now?

I often see a lack of long-term thinking from freelance creatives when it comes to pacing themselves. People are available at all hours and work nights and weekends to make their deadlines. You could probably keep that up for a couple years. But in the Netherlands, two-thirds of all job-related, psychological illnesses were classified as burn-out in 2019.

So the question to ask yourself is, in my opinion: do you want a short-term, stressful gig, or a long-term, thriving career? How are you going to make sure you’ll be able to do that?