How to be productive, happy and reduce stress at work
So many people I’ve spoken to over the past few weeks are busy or stressed. That’s their default, busy and/or stressed. Instead of talking about achievements or good things or focusing on themselves, it seems like we’re all perpetuating this idea that busy = normal, busy = working hard, busy = being a good person.
When people tell me they’re too busy or too stressed, I often ask them whether they’re a) putting themselves first b) exercising c) eating well or d) meditating, which are all part of my default formula to getting back on track. Most people who are somewhere in the venn diagram of busy and/or stressed are doing none of those things. So it doesn’t surprise me that we find ourselves in a constant cycle of having too much stress and busy-ness and not enough time to focus on the stuff that matters.
I believe that many of us are not doing enough for ourselves. We’re not putting ourselves first and fulfilling our needs. We’re not putting work or busy tasks aside to focus on us. If we constantly put ourselves at the bottom of our priority list, we’ll feel pulled all over the place. In conflict with what we really want. And yes, busy and/or stressed.
There are all kinds of things we can do to reduce feelings of stress, take tasks off our plate and understand that ‘being busy’ isn’t something to be glorified. But one place where we can make changes right now is how we punctuate our day. The routines we get into. The things we feed ourselves. The breaks we take. How we divide up our time.
Last week we were sent a press release full of worrying stats about how little time UK workers actually spend away from their desks throughout the day and it got me thinking that taking breaks is a great place to start making important changes and reduce stress at work. According to research commissioned by Leerdammer Light (yes, the cheese people), we all clock up an extra 19 days a year of work as a result of not taking lunch breaks. Or any breaks for that matter. Shall we all write an invoice to HR for all that extra time now then, or…?
So why are we all so rubbish at giving ourselves time to unwind, actually use our bodies and clear our heads from all the office drama? Well, the same survey reveals that 14% of those polled don’t take breaks because they’re too busy and 11% work through their lunch solely to impress their boss, which is a pretty sad stat guys.
The funny thing is, 22% say they’re definitely less efficient when they don’t take a break, and that’s only the ones who’ll admit it. We bet the actual stat (if we gave everyone brain scans throughout the day or something) would be much, much higher.
If it wasn’t obvious enough that regular breaks increase our productivity and squeeze better work out of each and every one of us, then have a quick Google around. There are literally thousands of reputable studies proving the benefits of taking breaks. This one summarised in Science Daily is all about focus at work and explores that regular breaks are indeed good for us because the more you focus on one thing the more your performance declines over the course of that task.
Work/break balancing techniques
So how do we learn to give ourselves a bit more time to focus on the needs of our bodies and minds? Well, there are a number of tried-and-tested techniques to give us more control, introduce some discipline into our days and super charge our productivity.
There’s the Pomodoro Technique, which is all about enhancing and harnessing our productivity. And great news guys: breaks are all part of it. Developed in the early 90s by Francesco Crillo, the premise is that we work more effectively when we break our work time into chunks called “pomodoros” that are interspersed with regular breaks. It’s believed that by focusing our minds for short bursts of high energy and then taking a break we’ll be more productive. All you need to get started is a timer. Work for 25 minutes. Take a 5 minute break. Then do four more work times for 25 minutes and make sure you take longer breaks in-between. Simple, right?
The Getting Things Done principle is a little more complex than it sounds, but it’s generally about getting out of your head and perpetual to-do list-writing and onto developing an easy-to-use system and actually, well, getting things done. It’s based on five key pillars: capturing everything, clarifying the actions, organising them, reflecting on them and engaging in them. Granted it may take some time to get your head around this method, but you can customise it to suit you and advocates sing from the rooftops about how it’s changed their lives. (Lifehacker published this great, in-depth piece about GTD if you’re interested.)
There are more complex explanations for Eat The Frog, but basically it’s all about thinking of the ultimate crappiest thing you have to do and doing it. Right away. Like, now. DO IT ALREADY! You can intersperse eating the worst frog with a kinda okay maybe it’s not so bad frog and working breaks in between each. You may think that starting your day off with the hardest thing is too challenging and in many ways it is, but you’ll relieve yourself of pressure so you can actually enjoy your day and punctuate it well.
And finally, let go of expectations. We all have silly expectations that we set ourselves, like getting to INBOX ZERO (this is so lame, seriously stop showing off about it), ticking off things from the to-do list or putting on an act so it looks like we’re really busy, which takes up more energy than actually getting things done. Let go of all your old rules. If you want to live a more stress-free, balanced life you have to get real and stop playing stupid games.
Things to do during your breaks
So let’s assume you’re on track. You’ve decided to stop trying to please everyone and prioritise your own time and happiness instead. But what the hell do you do with those valuable little nuggets of time?
The key to taking breaks throughout the day is figuring out what works for you. If you’re an extrovert and love noise, don’t force yourself to walk ten minutes to a park for a quick meditation session. Use your common sense. Again, put yourself first. This means actually stopping and thinking, ‘what do I want to do?’ and not ‘what SHOULD I really be doing?’ A break spent doing holier than thou stuff you’re not really that fussed about won’t be half as beneficial. In fact it’ll just make you feel more wound up.
Here are some of the things I love to do the most during my breaks. Some of them may sound boring, silly or just not right for you. But I’m lending you my break ideas so you can go on a ‘you time’ exploration. So, be more grateful, yeah?
Exercise, walk more or do some subtle stretching
It’s no secret that exercise is great for our physical and mental wellbeing. It reduces our resilience to stress, stops us feeling so anxious, and… here’s a good work-related one… massively improves memory and brain function.
The key thing to remember is that you don’t need to work your ass off to notice a difference in your mood (it’s a different story if you want to get RHW’s abs). Granted some people are dedicated enough to squeeze in a gym session at lunch time, but I prefer just to go for a walk and get moving. Grab yourself a fitness tracker (the Fitbit Charge or Misfit Flash would be good for this) and set yourself a target each break. You’ll get to move and feel a little bit more accomplished while you’re at it.
If your breaks consist of a quick gulp of air and then running back inside, then stretch. That’s right, go to the toilet or somewhere quiet and stretch. You’ll probably feel ridiculous, but just releasing some of the tension you’ve been holding onto all day – particularly in your shoulders – will relax you. There’s also something kinda awesome about that ‘I’m being ridiculous in the office’ feeling too, which might give you some perspective and make you realise your job is actually not the nightmare you make yourself believe it is (!!).
Get a change of scenery
Getting a change of scenery once or twice throughout the day can be a great way to press reset and get rid of stress. I’m an introvert and get really drained by being around people in the office, so I head to a quiet coffee shop where I can just sit. On my own. With some peace and quiet. This might seem like madness to people who like chatter and activity. For me it’s a great way to focus on myself for 15 minutes and get some alone time. Us introverts love ourselves a quality chunk of alone time.
Even if you’re not an introvert, stepping outside of the office can do all kinds of miraculous things for your brain and productivity. It’ll unwind you if you’re feeling stressed or aggravated and it could also spark creative ideas that you wouldn’t get in your boring office space.
Try on-the-go meditation
Because ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ have become some of the biggest buzzwords over the past year or so the amount of material online singing the praises of a more mindful, contemplative and serene attitude are endless. But as well as allegedly helping those with physical and mental illness, those who meditate regularly can literally change how their brain functions. The most interesting finding when it comes to productivity is that meditators are more attentive, less likely to get distracted and are quicker, more effective decision makers than their stressed-out counterparts. So taking breaks to meditate can actually make you much better at your job when you get back.
Many people are put off by the thought of meditating during a work break, but don’t worry, you don’t need to light candles and get your yoga mat out. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just puts some people off.) You can meditate quickly and on-the-go without changing your clothes, chanting or even looking like you’re meditating at all. I love Buddhify for this reason. It’s an app that’s all about mindfulness on-the-go and there are meditation practices for if you’re walking around, waiting around or even working online. You just pick one, press play and listen for five or six minutes and I guarantee that you’ll feel a little more centred once you start working again.
Do something you actually enjoy
I love discovering new break locations and my favourite so far has been an art gallery. I love colour, I love witnessing other people’s creativity and I love huge quiet, open spaces, so galleries are literally like my Disneyland. Granted you may not work near somewhere as fun or interesting (ILY Bermondsey Street), but find something you genuinely like doing. Something that fires up your brain and connects you with yourself again. For me that’s a gallery, for you it could be going to the gym, reading a book, visiting an event. It doesn’t matter what it is, just try and add one fun break into your working week, no matter how short or small it seems.
Get back to nature (or you know, just a park)
For many people taking a break among some good ol’ nature can be really calming. It’s probably because it’s the complete opposite to a corporate office, so just like mixing your scenery up with a coffee shop, a walk among trees can shift your attitude to a place that’s much happier, calmer and more productive. If you need more purpose to visit the park and feel silly meandering, try a walking meditation, start an Instagram photo challenge or set yourself a step goal with a tracker. Again, it really doesn’t matter how you spend your time around nature, just get out into it and find out if it makes you calmer or not.
Allow your mind to wander
So it might be the complete opposite of mindfulness practice, but according to some studies allowing your mind to wander can be a brilliant way to harness creativity. This paper in the Psychological Sciences journal about mind wandering and creative incubation suggests that the more you allow your mind to wander with non-taxing tasks, the more you can then focus your mind on the stuff that really matters. So fill your breaks with reading magazines, painting your nails, anything that doesn’t involve effort but does let you depart from reality, just a little bit. Think of it as a way to jolt your super zingy, super creative mind back into action.
Whether you implement a shiny, new break taking routine into each and every day or just vow to walk round the block a few times each week, I guarantee you that downing tools, breathing deeply and putting yourself first for just ten minutes or so will leave you feeling refreshed, more productive and happier.
By Becca Caddy, as published on Shiny, Shiny on 28th January 2015