“What! The project is due for Monday? I’ll get right on it!” You shout before putting down the slice of toast you thought was your phone and promise yourself you’ll try to get more sleep tonight.
We’ve all been there (okay maybe not exactly there), and it’s not a pretty picture. There’s only so much time you can fuel yourself on coffee and panic, but no matter how many projects or to-dos are on your list, you have to stop and make sure you’re not sacrificing your health over something that simply isn’t worth a visit to the doctor for.
It took me a long time to actually process this. At first, I would think “if I just power through 7 hours straight of work then I’ll be done and can relax.” That usually meant skipping meals and most times I’d be so focused I wouldn’t even drink water until I was absolutely done. Gradually (and after becoming seriously underweight), I began taking breaks every 1 or 2 hours to get away from the work and rest my eyes. Have a cup of tea with a snack or maybe even a 15 min power nap. I soon realised that after this little timeout, my focus was better and I worked with a renewed energy.
Now I don’t have a source for this, but while studying engineering my Digital Sound professor told us this:
“The human brain can only take 6 hours of working continuously on the same thing.”
To support his claim he shared an anecdote of when he was editing the sound effects of a short film. They were on a tight deadline so he worked 8 hours straight, no rest, and during his inevitable bathroom breaks, he would still be thinking of the work. He had a one-track mind and simply would not rest until the job was done.
So after the 8 hours, he gave his work a last listen through and then went to bed feeling accomplished. All seemed well, except the next day when his employer listened to the track, he fired my professor on the spot. My professor was stunned and listened to the track himself, shocked to hear that the audio track that sounded amazing last night now seemed like a bunch of sounds thrown together in a blender and then thrown down the stairs while inside a cave. In other words, it was terrible, and he simply couldn’t understand why especially when he had heard it over and over again last night and it sounded great!
Well, you know how parents think the world of their kids even when they’re actually embodiments of pure failure? Something similar happens when you’re working on something for too long. You’ve put so much effort into it that you begin to ignore all the mistakes and just see the good, so by the time you’re done with your project you see it as perfect, but someone else looking at it will notice all the flaws. This is also why it’s important to proof-read your writing long after writing it. Your fresh eyes will notice things your tired eyes didn’t while working on it. Getting a second opinion on your work is also a good practice.
So how can you take care of yourself without failing your work? Here are some tried and proven tips:
Schedule regular breaks throughout the day.
Whether you’d rather take breaks every hour or so, or after you accomplish a certain work goal, make sure you schedule regular breaks using an alarm and then when it’s time you actually do them and enjoy them. No skipping because you have “too much to do”. Nuh uh.
Try the Pomodoro Method
Okay, let’s bring science into this. If you’re a student this works particularly well. Research has proven this to be the most efficient method for retaining information while getting work done in short bursts. To do it, set a timer for 25 mins, then when it goes off take a short 5 min break. When you’re back, do the same again for a total of 4 rounds (1hr), then take a nice long 30 min break before doing another round of 4.
Take a Walk
Oh, look, more science! According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, taking a 20-minute walk can increase blood flow to the brain which actually helps to clear your mind and boost your creativity. Now doesn’t that sound good?
Look at cute animals.
Guess what, it has been proven that looking at adorable baby animals narrows your focus and promotes careful behaviour! So knock away your co-worker’s phone with its infinite gallery of their newborn and go look at some puppies.
Okay, I know most of you won’t want to do this one, but it can go from a stretch to an actual mini workout. There are 5-minute workouts which are real energy-boosters, and if you’re trying to get in shape then even more reason to give them a shot. Personally, I like FitnessBlender for my workouts — or at least I like watching them while I’m slumped in my chair eating a brownie. They have a plethora of videos for men and women from 5-minute workouts to full blown sessions.
Sometimes I put on some music and just daydream for 5-10 minutes, this is actually really great for boosting creativity and relaxing your eyes from staring at a screen all day. Make a mini mental movie to go with the song you’re listening to, or just really focus on the lyrics to help distract your mind from circling back to those pesky work-related thoughts.
Have a Snack
The best breaks are snack breaks. Grab a mug of joe, juice, cold water, or a nice cup of tea along with something tasty to eat, and just enjoy it. No one performs well when they’re hungry.
Take a Short Nap
According to NASA, 29 minute naps improve performance and alertness. But for many of us, almost half an hour off work is too much. So why not try the 10–15-minute naps which have also been found to improve energy and performance. Although if you’re too stressed to sleep, then even laying down with your feet up for 15 minutes while listening to music or zoning out will get you way more benefits than if you stayed at your workstation with bloodshot eyes.
Browse and Socialise
If you’ve been shutting yourself off from all things fun for a while, it may be a great idea to get back into your social networks or just go around and chat for a few minutes. It’ll take your mind off work and you can catch up with the gossip.
These are all things I have tried and found to help. Honestly, the key with all these tips is to get as far as you can from work during your breaks. It’s not going to do you any good if you’re munching on an apple while glaring at your essay. Get away from your workspace, clear your mind, take off your glasses if you have them and rest your eyes by staring into the distance or at nature. Take up some of the tips above or do whatever makes you feel good, just don’t think about work!
So if you can relate a little too much to the frog’s screaming eyes in the picture above this post, then feel free to take anything I’ve written for you here and start incorporating little changes into your busy days. Be kinder to your hardworking self. ‘Future you’ will thank you for it.