How Mini-Breaks Lead To Mini-Breakthroughs

I’ve just returned from my honeymoon - spent relaxing and exploring around Khao Lak, just north of Phuket. 

During this time, I got to read, lie in the sun, sleep in and enjoy long meals without impending deadlines.

And - unsurprisingly - I find myself returning to work with a brain full of new ideas to try in helping businesses with their innovation, a fresh energy and a new perspective on how work could be done. Why is this?

Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, has studied patterns of rest, productivity and creativity. His findings challenge the notion the more work = more output. Instead, Pang notes that many influential leaders - in both science, art and business - work for intensive bursts, with deliberate and protected breaks in between. 

He writes,

“The critical thing to recognize is that when we are mind-wandering, when our minds don't have any particular thing they have to focus on, our brains are pretty darn active.

When you do things like go for a long walk, your subconscious mind keeps working on problems. The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions. And then once it has arrived at one that looks promising, that is what pops into your head as an Aha! moment.”

Many of us intuitively know this - but we don’t take the step of protecting time and space to allow our brain to work on problems. Others don’t feel they have the authority to take a regular break to pause. And still others repeat the adage - I don’t have time. I’m too busy.

Interestingly, Professor Theresa Amabile, from Harvard University, has highlighted the role of time pressures in innovation. She has found that innovation thrives when it has an appropriate deadline placed on it - not too much, not too little.

And this is the crux of the problem.

Most people are too busy with their urgent tasks - that they cannot create any time pressure for things that matter.

Case in point. A few weeks ago I was sharing at HealthTech Conference, at Auckland’s Aotea Centre. After my presentation, I listened to a panel of doctors sharing about the future of medicine.

Dr Johan van Schalkwyk, from the Auckland DHB, highlighted a key dilemma. As technology seeks to increase the speed and effectiveness of doctor’s interactions with patients - it is not creating more time for reflection. Instead, it is increasing the workload.

Dr Schalkwyk explained how many of his insights have come from breaks - and he cautions that any improvements in efficiency will reduce the opportunities for these times - as the demand of seeing another patient is urgent.

It appears this is not just true for the medical fraternity - with McKinsey’s 2015 survey of 2500 executives in over 300 companies identifying the urgent time-pressure of the day-to-day as the biggest barrier to innovation.

So how can you buck this trend?

It’s about breaking the dichotomy.

Most people think the opposite of work is non-work. However, a better dichotomy is in-work and on-work.

The vast majority of your day-to-day work is working in your business - whether you are an entrepreneur or work for a large organisation. This is often the urgent matters, and the items on your to-do list or email inbox - or in your waiting room.

If you take a break from these duties to watch YouTube videos or play hackey-sack - it is likely your employer and co-workers will not be impressed.

However, if instead you schedule and protect a mini-break to work on your business, once a week - they will understand and likely ask you how to do this.

An easy way to begin this - is to schedule in a 15 min break for the end of the week. At this time, go and get a coffee (or water) - and sit down with a piece of refill and a pen.

Then - consider one of the following questions:

  • What process this week has taken me longer than I thought it would? If I could do this again - how would I do this differently?
  • What wider trends are directly impacting on my work - and who should I talk to about learning how we can take advantage of this?
  • If I could spend one day a week focused on deep-work on one task - what would that task be?
  • What do the people who use my service expect - and how can I deliver this?
  • What big ideas for improving work are floating in my head right now?

Jot down your answers. 

Identify actions and next steps.

Then schedule in time to work on these.

This is simple - and a MVP approach to introducing widespread cultural change. Yet - as a culture is merely repeated habits - this ongoing approach can help introduce pause into your daily work-flow, and normalise a new pattern of work.

If you're feeling brave - write down in the comments if you took the bold step of booking in this time - and making this happen.