In today’s hectic world, time management, quality time and work/life balance are hot topics. This is even more true in the word of freelancing, enterprise and self-employment, where people set their own goals and working hours.
So, what does research tell us about how to get it right? How and when should we work, rest and play? Let’s take a quick look at what both the serious and more light-hearted research can teach us.
Work: The Peak Productivity Period
How long should you work for before you take a break? Some people quote concentration span statistics; other people believe that the length of time for which each of us can focus productively varies.
In 2104, social networking company The Draugiem Group used DeskTime, their own time-tracking productivity app, to help them identify the most productive employees and assess their working habits. Their research revealed that the most productive 10% of employees put in fewer hours of work than their less productive colleagues. And on average, they took a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes of work. This split seemed to help them focus more intensely on work, because they knew that in a short time, they would have a reasonably long break.
This particular piece of research strikes a chord with me, because I use the Keep Focused tool, which gives me 25-minute work sessions followed by 5 minute breaks. While generally this works well, sometimes I find myself ignoring the 5-minute break because I’m deep into the work – and I also find the 5-minute break is often too short to do anything useful, particularly when I’m working in my office at home. The kitchen is a long way away, so making a cuppa can use up the whole 5 minutes! I can see the appeal of a 52/17 split.
Rest: Long Hours May Be Bad for your Longevity!
It seems that all work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy – it may make him a dead one.
A research paper published in 2015 by Public Health expert Prof Mika Kivimäki showed that working long hours can significantly increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. The study showed that people working 55 hours or more per week has a 33% higher risk of stroke and a 13% higher risk of coronary heart disease than those who work a standard 35–40 hour week.
While this study didn’t look at the potential reasons behind this link, experts commenting on the study afterwards suggested that these increased risks may be due to prolonged sitting, stress, less time for exercise and less time for relaxation and healthy eating. In other words, too much time working means not enough time looking after your health and wellbeing.
A 2013 experiment by tour operator Kuoni and health charity Nuffield Health also showed that having a holiday may decrease our blood pressure and blood sugar levels, improve our sleep and stress resilience and boost our mood. This seemed to be true of not just the total relaxation type holiday but more active holidays too, so it seems Sheryl Crow was right: a change would do you good.
Play: Pandas and Positive Procrastination
The internet is both loved and loathed for the wealth of information and entertainment it can deliver to our virtual, digital doors. It’s often blamed for its power to distract us, seen as our persuasive partner in procrastination crime.
A popular target for people’s complaints are cute animal pictures and videos. You know the ones; those baby pandas in the panda nursery, squirrels completing obstacle courses, dogs water-skiing, rabbits sleeping with baby deer, cats- ahem. I’m sure you’re aware of them. I’ll stop, er, researching then.
Now surely the complainers have a point. Looking at these when you should be working can in no way be a good thing. Can it?
Well, back in 2012, researchers from Hiroshima University in Japan gave subjects three tasks to complete, each using a different skill – and then, yes, you’ve guessed it, they tested their ability to complete these tasks again after looking at cute images. The result? Improved performance!
“Results show that participants performed tasks requiring focused attention more carefully after viewing cute images. This is interpreted as the result of a narrowed attentional focus induced by the cuteness-triggered positive emotion that is associated with approach motivation and the tendency toward systematic processing.”
And yes, the cuter the picture, the greater the effect. Puppies and kittens were more effective that adult cats and dogs. You can read about it for yourself here.
So, there you have it. Work hard, but work short. Use that annual leave for a proper break rather than continually carrying it over or using it up on squandered days at home. And don’t let anyone tell you that looking at cute animals (in your breaks, obviously), is a waste of your time and brain power. Just point them to the research – you’ll be running rings round them when you’re back at your desks!
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