It is no secret that Google ranks among the most innovative companies in the world. Just type “Google + innovations” in their search engine and you get more than eight million hits right away.
One would assume that they have assembled one of the smartest and most creative workforces anywhere. The few Google employees I have personally met were smart alright, but they didn’t strike me as supernaturally gifted. All those willing to talk to me about working for Google (not all are inclined to do so) said they enjoyed being with the company primarily because they felt appreciated there.
The importance of taking breaks
Indeed, Google takes pride in having a super-friendly work environment. This includes giving employees plenty of time to play with their own ideas. For example, engineers are encouraged to spend up to twenty percent of their work hours (as much as a full day per week) doing what they want – which can range from taking time off to pouring their hearts into projects they passionately believe in.
The concept has been extremely successful, not only for the workers, but also for Google’s bottom line. Some of the most exciting innovations the company has come up with were initiated by individual employees, often in their “free” time.
But Google’s relaxed attitude towards office hours is not simply based on the desire to be “extra nice.” The policy is rather part of a conscious effort to optimize creativity.
Scientific research has shown that the human brain performs at its best when it is stimulated. We all experience that our minds function better and longer when we do something that interests us and that we enjoy. Just think, for example, how much time and energy you are able to spend on your hobby or your favorite sport. By contrast, staying focused on something you don’t like or find boring is much harder. By giving its employees time to daydream, fantasize, experiment or simply rest, Google taps into the ingenuity and creativity of its people and utilizes them for its own benefits.
Stephen Covey, the best selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1989), has dedicated the final segment of his book to the subject of rest and rejuvenation. In the last chapter, titled “Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal,” Covey illustrates the importance of regular regeneration with the story of a man who exhausts himself trying to cut down a tree with a dull saw. “Taking time to sharpen the saw” he calls the seventh habit, which “surrounds the other habits [...] because it is the habit that makes all others possible.”
Taking enough time to renew our strengths and resources is necessary to preserve and enhance the greatest asset we have, ourselves. This does not only include our physical health, but also our emotional, mental, social and spiritual well-being. Obviously, they are all intertwined and dependent on each other.
In our culture, we are often led to believe that anything can be achieved by hard work and hard work only. But we all know full well that we can’t keep performing at peak level forever. For a while, we may be able to cheat, push through, force ourselves to stay focused and get the job done. Eventually, we get to the point where we are just too exhausted, drained, bored or uninspired to go any further. Then we are unable to muster enough energy to get another project started. We stare at problems, puzzled, confused and unable to solve them. We procrastinate for no obvious reasons. We can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees. In this state of mind, the smartest thing to do is to press the pause button.
On the other hand, we have all encountered “eureka” moments, when the “penny dropped” and we finally – and often unexpectedly – find the answers we were looking for. This can happen at any time and in the most unlikely places, like in the car, on a walk, in the gym, on the golf course or in the shower. I speak from experience. Like most writers, I regularly jump out of bed in the middle of the night to write down some thoughts that have eluded me for days. It seems that when we allow ourselves to relax and stop trying too hard, our mind keeps going at its own pace – and sometimes with astonishing results.
Forcing ourselves to keep going when we’re running on empty may be the worst thing we can do for our work and ourselves. Researchers in the relatively new field of “psychobiology” have shown that our mind follows a certain pattern of activity and rest throughout the day. In analogy to the more familiar “circadian rhythm” (the 24 hour cycle of night and day), they call these fluctuations of the mind “ultradian rhythms.”
According to their findings, the mind does switch back and forth between periods of intense focusing and phases of recovery – not at the time of our choosing, but at its own volition. In other words, we are biologically programmed to take breaks and rest periods, whether we want to or not. Scientists believe that these downtimes are necessary to clean the body of metabolic waste and restore energy. Continuously and forcefully ignoring the need for rest and relaxation can lead to any number of negative consequences, like chronic stress and many stress-related health effects.
Scheduling regular breaks into your busy day
So, before you fill up your day planner and compile your to-do lists next time, make sure you schedule your breaks as if they were appointments. Actually, they are appointments you make with yourself for the benefit of your health and well-being.
Coffee breaks and little chats around the water cooler are fine, but they are not enough. If your job requires you to spend hours on end in front of a computer monitor, your breaks should definitely involve some moving and stretching exercises. If you work mostly inside with no windows to open, you should go outside for a little sun and fresh air whenever you can get away. Your office building may or may not have a gym. If so, use it often! If not, take the stairs; walk around the premises or to a nearby park. Use your lunch break for walking, running, Yoga, Tai Chi or whatever takes your mind off work. Join your colleagues or invite them to team up with you. Many companies encourage and facilitate health and fitness programs for their employees. If not, come up with a proposal and talk to your personnel department.
Weekends are not meant to be work days at home. Do something specific on your days off instead of letting the time get away from you by doing a thousand little chores. Have a change of scenery. Go hiking or bicycling, walk on a beach, visit a museum, go dancing, go bowling, attend a county fair or music festival. Join a sports club. Make physical activities a regular family event or become part of a group that shares your interests.
When you are at work, don’t clutter your mind in ways that pull you in many different directions. You may be proud of your multi-tasking skills but always juggling too many projects at once is not a good way to spend your energy. Try to stay focused on one thing at a time, so your mind can fully function.
I wouldn’t be a dietitian if I didn’t have some advice to give about the food you should eat during your breaks. Most of us think of coffee and snacks when we are in need of a boost. My advice is to avoid caffeine and sugary drinks as well as sweet, fatty and salty food items. Instead, I recommend fresh fruit and plenty of water for re-hydration. In truth, you may crave something to drink or to munch on, not because you are hungry but because you are bored or tired and in dire need of some rest. Typical snack foods may seem to hit the spot for the moment, but they often have little or no nutritional value and won’t give you much energy. On the contrary, many snack items can bog you down with empty calories.
The best break of all, of course, is a good night’s rest. Chronic sleep deprivation and disrupted sleep patterns are among the leading causes for stress. If you can’t get enough repose during the night, you can make up for it with an afternoon nap. If that is out of the question (as it is for most working people), you must make more sleep time available on weekends or whenever possible. Observing and maintaining good sleep hygiene is still the best medicine we have to recover from our daily challenges. Continue to Week Ten »