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Accomplish More by Doing Less

Ask practically anyone in modern America how they’re doing, and the answer is likely to be “busy.” It’s a sentiment—and a condition—that’s so ubiquitous that the asker is likely to answer “me too” with a sympathetic nod.

Whether it’s an overstuffed work schedule (complete with lunch at your desk) or an air-tight family calendar that bounces from activity to activity with hardly time for a bathroom break, we lose something when our days are packed with work and scheduled activity from dawn till dusk.

Our productivity, our sanity, and even our health suffer when we fail to make time for regular rest and renewal. But there’s a simple antidote to this common problem—take a break.

Addicted to ‘Busy’

It’s no surprise that Americans are addicted to being busy. “Work harder and longer” may not show up as actual signage in any workplace, but it’s a message that seems to be tattooed on the American psyche.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, more than half of the U.S. workforce left valuable vacation days on the table in 2018, to the tune of 768 million unused days. That number represents work days that were essentially donated to their employers, and it’s a number that has steadily increased over the past several decades.

And many of those who did take vacation days didn’t fully leave their work behind. A recent study by shows that 68 percent used their phones to work while on vacation instead of fully immersing themselves in the vacation experience.

Vacation time aside, even on-the-job break time is often underused.

According to a survey conducted by Right Management, the majority of American workers don’t take what we could call a real lunch break—one that includes disengaging from work to enjoy a midday meal. The survey found that 28 percent of workers “seldom, if ever” break for lunch, while 39 percent usually eat at their desks. This is in spite of the fact that most workers say that taking a lunch break actually improves their job performance and makes them feel more engaged and productive.

These employees are missing the opportunity to recharge and bring their best selves to their work. Research by The Energy Project has found that human beings progress from a state of alertness to physiological fatigue roughly every 90 minutes. After that, we can, of course, continue to work, but our focus, motivation, and productivity won’t be at their best.

The Cost of Burnout

We might assume that all those long hours put in by American workers result in super-productivity and larger incomes, and there may be some truth to that. But our saturated work schedules, when added to other life commitments, come at a high cost. American adults receive more mental health diagnoses, including anxiety and depression, than those in any other developed country. Could this have something to do with our failure to take time for regular, restorative breaks? Consider the fact that European countries average a minimum of between 20 and 30 paid vacation days per year for full-time workers. The average in the United States for most private industry workers is 10 days after one year of employment.

Daniel H. Pink, author of five New York Times bestsellers focusing on business, work, creativity, and behavior, has broken down both the benefits and drawbacks of the average American workday.

When it comes to the downside of break-less work, he told The Epoch Times: “The big potential impacts are declining productivity and creativity. Our brains and bodies are not built to go, go, go endlessly. They need to be recharged. And that means we need to start thinking of breaks, not as a deviation from our performance—but as ‘part’ of our performance.

“We’ve been seduced by the belief that amateurs take breaks and professionals don’t. But that’s 180 degrees wrong. Professionals take breaks because they know that the occasional pause to recharge enhances their ability to connect and contribute.”

Breaks for a Mental and Emotional Boost

This need for renewal after prolonged, focused mental or physical effort applies to everyone, not just working adults. A Danish study of schoolchildren found that students’ test scores were highest first thing in the morning and decreased by 0.9 percent for each successive hour throughout the school day because of increased mental fatigue as the day went on.

Interestingly, however, after a 20- to 30-minute break, average test scores went up by 1.7 percent—more than making up for the earlier decline. Aside from the implications for the timing of scheduling tests, the study also highlighted the importance of break times for cognitive performance, an important consideration as some schools have canceled or reduced recess times in a misconstrued attempt to improve test scores.

The effects of allowing some downtime to recharge can be far-reaching. In 2011, researchers studied more than 1,100 rulings given by judges on two Israeli parole boards that serve four major prisons in Israel. Data collected included the time of day the decision was handed down, as well as its place within the sequence of decisions for that day. In their study published in the PNAS, the researchers reported that, in general, the judges were more likely to issue a favorable ruling (such as granting parole or removing a tracking device) in the morning than in the afternoon.

There’s more to productivity than just putting in more hours. The quality of those hours matters. When you’re facing weariness and fatigue, whether it’s mental, emotional, or physical, a well-utilized break—even a very short one of 10 minutes or less—can make the difference between excellence in performance and working at a subpar level. Our energy, focus, creativity, and even emotional stability are finite resources that need to be replenished when depleted. We can’t run on empty.

A study published in the February 2008 issue of The Academy of Management Journal, “Making the Break Count: An Episodic Examination of Recovery Activities, Emotional Experiences, and Positive Affective Displays,” examined the effect of work breaks on emotional states via data collected from 64 cheerleading instructors who were chosen because cheerleading requires continual positive affective displays. In other words, cheerleaders need to continually look cheerful, regardless of how they’re actually feeling.

The researchers concluded that “employees who engaged in more respite activities during work breaks experienced higher levels of positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions during these breaks and exhibited higher levels of positive affective displays after the breaks.”

It’s not much of a stretch to think that customer-facing employees, managers, and parents, to name a few—all of whom face continual demands on their emotional resources—can benefit greatly from regular breaks.

The Type of Break Matters

For breaks to be truly effective in helping us perform at our best, a week-long vacation, as wonderful and revitalizing as it might be, isn’t a long-term solution to day-to-day burnout. In fact, most vacation-derived benefits fade quickly after returning home—within just a few weeks.

Breaks don’t need to be long to be effective, but the quality of the break does matter. A break that does its job of leaving you refreshed, recharged, and ready to refocus can take many different forms, but according to research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in 2007, it must provide psychological detachment from the work at hand and positive emotions.

Eating lunch at your desk while scrolling through work emails won’t provide much, if any, real benefit. Using your break time to vent about a problem at work with a frustrated colleague also fails to pass the test.

However, what can be beneficial is break time spent going for a walk (especially in a park or other green space), exercising, eating lunch with someone you enjoy talking with (so long as it’s not about work), or even taking a short nap of 10 to 20 minutes. These are the sorts of breaks that are likely to leave you more energized, motivated, and with greater cognitive and emotional resources—all things that are vital not only to doing your best work but also to being your best self.

For those who feel too overworked to make time for a break or two (or three) during the day or for whom guilt, perceived employer expectations, or an effort to “look busy” keeps them from taking a time out, Pink suggests: “Start small. Taking a break doesn’t mean going on a two-hour siesta every afternoon. It means taking any kind of break you can fashion. My advice: Tomorrow afternoon, take a 15-minute walk break outside, preferably with someone else, and leaving your phone behind. If it’s helpful—and it will be—do it the next day.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. Epoch Health welcomes professional discussion and friendly debate. To submit an opinion piece, please follow these guidelines and submit through our form here.

Zrinka Peters

Zrinka Peters is a freelance writer focussing on health, wellness, and education topics. She has a BA in English Literature from Simon Fraser University in Canada and has been published in a wide variety of print and online publications including Health Digest,, Today’s Catholic Teacher, and

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