Take a Break

On Thursday I took a break. A real break.

I met a few of my friends for brunch at 10:45am in Toronto. When the meal ended, we weren’t ready to call it, so we relocated to coffee shop and kept our conversation rolling. Then we were hungry again, so we grabbed lunch, then beers at a brewery. After the brewery, dinner. And an ice cream sandwich to wrap up the evening at 10:30pm.

Twelve hours spent with friends. No electronics. No work. Just conversation.

This may sound like a waste of a day — especially if you consider that it was a Thursday — but would you believe me if I told you that I was more productive than usual this week?

If I Look Away, This All Falls Apart

Disconnecting is hard. When I’m not staying on top of email and checking in with my team at work, I feel like I’m cheating. Like I’m somehow letting myself and my coworkers down.

“If I look away, this all falls apart,” I tell myself.

This makes the idea of leaving my phone at home terrifying. My chest tightens the way it would if I forgot my wallet or left the stove on — something terrible is about to happen.

My fear of the chaos that could happen if I wasn’t constantly present led me to work an average of 10 hours every day in 2013.

Not Monday through Friday. Every. Damn. Day.

Setting Myself on Fire

My health and happiness suffered — mostly due to the high stress levels of never turning off — and I realized something needed to change. I suspected my work habits were the source, so I decided to experiment.

Since I’m not one for dipping a toe in, I decided to set myself on fire. I went to Alaska for eight days without a phone or a computer.

No safety net. No escape hatch. I was there until my return flight, with no option to change my mind. Like it or not, I was disconnected and I was going to see the experiment through.

Here’s what I thought would happen when I disconnected:

  • All of my clients would fire me
  • All of my projects would descend into chaos
  • I’d come home to the wreckage of my career
  • After sweeping up the shattered bits of my former life, I would move into my parents’ basement
  • I would die poor, alone, and ashamed

Here’s what actually happened when I disconnected:

  • None of that

I hiked, and relaxed, and had some time to reflect on how things were being done (rather than just focusing on what needed to be done next). My unconscious mind spun up and rolled ideas around, and I found the solutions to several lingering problems on both work and personal projects.

Everything was okay.

All of my fears were ridiculous and unfounded.

Doing Less Is More Productive

Turning off isn’t slacking off. I’m giving the other parts of my brain time to work. This is actually better for productivity.

Additionally, when I work non-stop, I find myself moving slowly and wasting a lot of time idly checking email. I’m not getting more done in more hours; I’m just there, and it’s likely I’m actually accomplishing less.

What should take three hours takes six because I don’t feel any urgency.

With breaks, your work days become shorter. It becomes easier to focus. “I know I have to shut down by 3pm, so I’d better crank on this for the next four hours to make sure it’s finished before then.”

Since I’ve adopted actual breaks into my days, I have actually been getting more done in fewer total hours worked. It seems counterintuitive, but there’s actually a mountain of research supporting this.

A Dare for You: Take a Personal Day

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, or if you feel like your productivity is starting to flag, try an experiment: take a day off.

Plan a full day without your computer. Leave your phone at home. Shut off. Work less.

Is a full day too scary? Start small: take just two hours to leave your phone at home and spend time alone or with a friend without any electronic distractions.

You might be surprised at what you’re able to accomplish.

What to do next.

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to consider joining my newsletter. I’ll send you messages about new content and occasionally send quicker thoughts and ideas only to my subscribers.

I don’t have comments on my blog, but I love hearing your feedback on Twitter or email. I read everything I get and respond when I can.

Let’s be email buddies.