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Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
Finding Meaning Through the Many Windows of Wellness

Taking It Easy Can Actually Boost Your Productivity

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 19th 2013

Have you ever spent 12 hours straight nestled into your cubicle, only to go home feeling like you didn't accomplish squat? There's a reason for that, and it has to do with the way we're built - or not built, really.

time for a break on clock faceAccording to an article in the New York Times by Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project and author of "Be Excellent at Anything," humans just aren't made to be work-a-holics. And while our culture of achievement and obsession with more lead us to believe that living on an average of 5 hours of sleep and sacrificing all personal pleasures will somehow pay off in status, performance, or dollars, this hypothesis actually backfires in an ugly way.

Since we've mentioned sleep, let's start with that. Schwartz cites studies showing that getting fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night predicted on-the-job burnout and costs U.S. corporations $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity. On the flipside, getting adequate sleep or incorporating naps into the workday boosted productivity and performance among basketball players and air traffic controllers alike.

Research on the use of vacation time yields similar results. Using more vacation time was associated with higher performance ratings and employee retention, even though our gut reaction is to work longer and harder when we're under the gun. I can easily relate to this truism when I recall my years as a doctoral student. Functioning on fewer than 5 hours of sleep a night and a diet of coffee and Cheez-Its, I missed far too many family gatherings and trips because I didn't feel I could ever take a break from studying.

Schwartz provides a compelling argument for frequent relaxation. You're probably familiar with the biological concept of a 90-minute sleep cycle - our bodies shift from light to deep sleep and back again approximately every hour and a half. But did you know that our physiological waking life operates in much the same way? In the 1960s (Why are we not hearing about this until now?), Professor Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that while awake, our bodies glide from states of alertness into fatigue about every - you guessed it - 90 minutes.

Don't you see? Our wise bodies are telling us to take frequent breaks, but we continually tune out those messages and instead plow through with coping aids such as caffeine, sugar, and - in my case - Cheez-Its.

But researchers of Kleitman's findings have learned that elite performers in sports and the arts do listen to their bodies. They rarely work more than 90 minutes at a time, and they rarely practice more than a total of 4 ½ hours a day.

Now wouldn't that be nice? I know what you're thinking: How in the world will you convince your boss to let you work only 4 ½ hours a day? I agree that the chances are meager, but you can still incorporate relaxation into your current schedule. For instance, try taking a break - however short or long you can manage - every 90 minutes. If you manage three breaks per day, even if they're only 10 minutes long, I'll bet that's a lot more play time than you've been getting.

Here's another suggestion. If you can take three breaks per day, try to cover a few different bases of wellness. Focus one break on exercise, whether it's a 30-minute run or a 10-minute walk. Make another break a social one - have lunch with a friend, for instance, and avoid talking about work at all costs. Finally, choose a solitary activity for your third break, and make sure it's something you really love to do. For me, that would be a quick game of Boggle or Wordplay. You'll come back to your desk refreshed and ready to go.

I've already started practicing these principles and have noticed a difference not only in my productivity, but in my overall wellbeing too. If you decide to try out these ideas as well, please come back and tell us about it - perhaps during one of your work breaks.


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

It’s a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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