The surprising secret to being more productive

With all of our long hours and reluctance to use vacation time, you’d think Americans would be the most productive workers in the world. But we’re not. Sure, we’re up there—ranked number five of countries with the highest GDP per hour worked. But we also worked more hours per week, on average, than the four most productive countries—Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, and Belgium.

Contrary to our “first-to-the-office, last-to-leave” vision of what makes an efficient worker, research is showing that working more can actually reduce productivity—and that brief breaks can actually help you stay more focused. After all, our brains are designed to respond to change. Any stimulation that’s constant—like the sensation of clothing on your skin, or that report you’ve been staring at for two hours—will make your brain see it as unimportant, and, eventually, stop registering it altogether. A break acts as a brain reset, enabling you to see your work with fresh eyes.

So how do you go from a glued-to-your-desk mindset to one that helps you work smarter, improve productivity, and prevent burnout?

1. Embrace the break

Think that breaks are for slackers? You should know that one study, using data from a time-tracking app, found that employees with the highest productivity tended to work for 52 minutes and then take a break for 17. And they didn’t even work a full eight-hour day. Their secret? Working with intense purpose for short periods and then unplugging with just as much dedication. While the 52/17 average isn’t going to be the perfect ratio for everyone, experiment with your own sprint-and-relax schedule to see what works.

2. Move it

Regular, moderate physical activity can do a lot for you. Research shows it can boost energy, reduce anxiety, and have a positive impact on cognitive functioning—improving our self-control, decision making, and ability to handle competing needs. Best of all, this happens the same day you exercise, so you can reap the benefits almost immediately. Experts recommend a moderate workout for the biggest benefit—aim for an exercise break that’s enough to recharge, not exhaust, your energy.

3. Stay hydrated

Studies show that even mild dehydration—defined as a loss of just 1.5% of the body’s normal water volume—can affect energy levels and our ability to think clearly. Thirst isn’t always a reliable indicator, since many people don’t feel thirsty until they’re already dehydrated. Regular water breaks will help you stay on top of your game—you should take in about two liters of water over the course of your day.

4. Let your mind wander

You might be tempted to call it a break when you’re catching up on email or diving into Facebook, but you’ll probably get more out of a break if you completely unplug. Take advantage of what psychologists call incubation—let your unconscious mind do some of the heavy lifting in the background while your conscious mind is only lightly engaged. Go for a meandering walk, do some dishes, take a knitting break, listen to some classical music. At the very least, you’ll return to the task at hand more refreshed—and at best you’ll find that new ideas and solutions pop up without any effort.

5. Ramp up the cute quotient

If you’re already obsessed with surfing for pictures of kittens or baby pandas, now you can tell your boss it’s all in the pursuit of productivity. A study at Hiroshima University concludes that looking at baby animals improves focus and the performance of tasks requiring fine motor dexterity. Researchers suggest this is because we’re hard-wired to respond to baby features—like large eyes and heads—with caregiving and positive emotions. Boost your productivity right now with this gallery of cuteness.

6. Schedule it

Are you the type to realize, mid-afternoon, that you haven’t moved out of your chair since you sat down with your first cup of coffee? Enlist the help of your fitness watch, phone, or computer app to remind you to take a break and move around. A study by Cornell’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory found that workers who got reminders did more accurate work—resulting in greater productivity.

7. Take a real lunch

Many office cultures support an unspoken “lunch at your desk” rule, but it’s worth it to buck convention. For starters, socializing is a good thing. Research shows that people with more social connections at work—and more interactions with those connections—are also more productive, whether or not they’re talking about work in those interactions. And a lunch out usually means at least a short walk, unplugging from your devices and projects, and rehydrating—making a proper lunch the mother of all breaks.

The science is clear—working harder isn’t necessarily working smarter. The right kind of breaks—ones that refresh your brain and leave you rested and ready to tackle that to-do list—can help you be a productivity superstar. And maybe prevent you from going supernova.
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