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How to Take Breaks Without Feeling Lazy

Can you boost productivity by resting more?

Key points

  • In our busy world, many people put pressure on themselves to stay busy or "do it all."
  • Evidence finds that working less and taking regular breaks can make you more productive in the long run.
  • To stop feeling guilty when we rest, we need to re-train our brains that rest is valuable.

The other day, I was looking at my schedule for the summer and had a moment of panic when I realized I would be without my laptop for two whole weeks during our family camping trip.

I know you might be thinking "But that sounds amazing! Two weeks with no pressure to answer emails, no squinting at a screen for hours, just relaxing in nature. Time to refresh and restore my brain and body."

But here’s the thing: I’m a giant perfectionist and overachiever. So the idea of taking two weeks off from my business made me feel super uncomfortable. I started thinking of all the things I should be doing with that time instead of sitting on a chair roasting marshmallows:

  • Client work that needs to be done
  • The pile of emails that would be waiting for me when I get back
  • That monster project I want to finish and no one else can do it for me

Before I knew it, my brain was starting to talk me out of going on vacation or trying to talk me into working 60 hours the week before so I would feel less guilty taking time off.

I know I’m not alone here. In our busy world, we put a ton of pressure on ourselves to be productive. To work harder. To hustle and get more done. This is especially true for goal-getting, high-achieving women who want to thrive in their careers while also having a life outside of work. We start to feel this pressure to try and “do it all.” And when we rest or take time off, we feel like we should be working.

We live in a culture that values being busy, where "hard work" means working long hours and working all the time. How many times do you bump into someone on the street and you ask them how they're doing and they sigh and they say "Oh, busy"? Busy is the new normal. And because of this, when we're not busy, we feel like we're doing something wrong.

2 Steps To Take Time Off Work Without Feeling Guilty

1. Control what you can.

I’m not saying work 60 hours a week one week so you feel OK taking the next week off. What I am saying is to do some planning so you feel more comfortable taking the time off.

Are there tasks you can delegate while you’re away so all that work isn’t waiting for you when you get back to your desk? Can you set autoresponders on your email and phone so folks know you’re not available and when you’ll get back to them? Are there meetings that can be canceled or moved to another day so you don’t feel like you’re missing out?

Our brains love feeling comfortable and in control. A bit of prep work can help you feel a bit more confident that the world isn’t going to end if you’re away from your emails for a few days.

2. Get your brain to think outside the box.

Remind yourself of the benefits of taking a break when guilt creeps back in. Let me get you started. Benefits of taking time away from work include:

  • Your brain gets a chance to rest and recharge.
  • Your body can rest and recover energy.
  • You’ll be more creative when you aren’t so stressed out.
  • Your motivation to work can increase.
  • You might come up with new ideas when your brain has some space.
  • Your family can have fun.
  • You get to spend time with your spouse and kids, or friends.
  • You could finally read that book that’s been sitting on your nightstand forever.

Again, the goal here is to let your imagination go wild. Our brains are great at thinking of those worst-case scenarios—all the reasons not to take a break. Instead, we want our brains focused on the benefits of resting—the reasons that taking time off work is a good thing. If your brain needs more proof, here's what the evidence says:

  • A study at Stanford University found that productivity sharply declines after you work 50 hours a week. Folks working 70 hours a week are actually getting as much done, on average, as those working 55.
  • Iceland moved 2,500 people to a 4-day work week. Their productivity didn’t change. But they reported less stress and better work-life balance.
  • Chronic stress (like from working all the time) is associated with an increased risk of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, heart problems, sleep problems, weight gain, and even memory problems.
  • A 2012 Swedish study followed 1,800 people for 18 years. The group that lived the longest tended to have a number of really healthy habits; they didn’t smoke, they exercised regularly, and they were of a healthy weight. And the interesting part? They also spent time regularly with friends and family, and did at least one leisure activity, like a hobby. Those folks lived almost 5 years longer than the group that didn’t have those healthy habits.

Our brains weren’t designed to work all the time. But we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to work past our limits. The problem? This is a quick path to burnout, and you end up getting less done in the long run.

The value we place on being busy and working all the time is something we’ve learned. This means we can unlearn these mental habits and get more comfortable giving ourselves breaks every once in a while.

References

Pencavel, J. (2013). The Productivity of Working Hours. Stanford Institute for Economic Research Policy.

Haraldsson, G. D., & Kellman, J. (2021). Going Public: Iceland’s Journey to a Shorter Working Week. Autonomy Work.

Marin, F. M. et al. (2011). Chronic stress, cognitive functioning, and mental health. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 96(4).

Rizzuto, D. et al (2012). Lifestyle, social factors, and survival after age 75: Population based study. BMJ, 345

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