Can’t See How to Make a Decision? You May Just Need a Break

Have you been mulling over some tough decisions?

Here’s the truth about decision making. It’s mentally exhausting.

And for many entrepreneurs, it’s the hundred little decisions that wear away our resolve and mental clarity.

Mental fatigue is real.

We need breaks to rest and recharge, yet studies show Americans in particular are notorious for not taking their much-needed breaks.

Around half of American workers feel they’re not able to take a proper lunch break. Almost half don’t take all of their vacation time, while there is a significant number that just don’t take vacations.

The problem is that, while we martyr ourselves on the altar of work, our productivity, our ability to make clear decisions, and our overall health and wellness suffer. Here’s why you may just need a break…

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The science behind taking your breaks

How many times have you felt fatigued, only to force yourself to keep going, perhaps with the aid of coffee or energy drinks?

Studies show that humans are designed to “pulse” between expending energy, then renewing energy. You might think if you get your eight hours of sleep per night, that should be enough to renew your energy, but the truth is our mental energy cycles are much shorter.

Tony Schwartz, founder of The Energy Project has poured a lot of research time into human energy and how we can manage it more skillfully. His findings show that we actually cycle between expending and renewing energy every 90 minutes.

And if you try to override your natural need to pause, the quality of your decisions and other mental output will decline. You’ll be working, but less effectively.

When your mental energy is low, your highest priority should be just one thing. Getting back to a state of energized, peak performance as quickly as possible. It should become your TOP priority.

The Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo has been a popular tool among those aiming to boost their productivity. To follow the Pomodoro Technique, you work for 25 minutes giving your full focus to a single task, then take a 5-minute break. It’s counter intuitive, but countless self-experimenters find they get MORE done with these frequent breaks, not less.

The important point isn’t so much the exact timing of swinging between work and breaks, but finding a cycle that works well for you. For some people, that might mean working for 90 minutes then taking a break for 10 - the key is that we need the break to renew ourselves to function optimally.

What happens without breaks?

First, there’s no doubt that productivity can suffer when people don’t take breaks. Skipping lunch or working late doesn’t mean you get more done.

In fact, a study by an IT firm in Latvia found that their top 10% most productive employees had one trait in common - the ability to effectively take breaks. They didn’t work any more hours than anyone else.

As far as your brain and body goes, a lack of breaks can lead to a host of problems. First of all, there’s the fatigue. We simply are not wired to work for hours on-end without a break. Our minds and bodies grow tired and we can suffer from decision fatigue, lack of focus and even damaged eyes.

Working while feeling mentally tired can be a subtle, but chronic form of stress. It’s not your optimum state for getting stuff done. And fatigue can simply make you more susceptible to stress of all kinds.

When your body’s stress response is activated continuously, you become over-exposed to cortisol and other stress hormones. This puts you at a heightened risk for anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, high blood pressure, heart attack, sleep problems, weight gain and long-term cognitive decline.

Your brain on breaks

The following was taken from a New York Times article on the importance of breaks:

“A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

Studies show that when you’re taking a break, your brain in fact is not idle. It’s making important connections in the background, recognizing links and related ideas that are too numerous for you to process with rational, conscious thought.

This subconscious level of processing, recalls distant memories and imagines the future. It can even work on problems you’ve consciously forgotten about. That decision or solution you’ve been seeking might emerge for you after you take a decent break!

Breaks spark creativity and better decision-making. They keep you fresh and more focused over longer periods of time. They help with your memory-retention and your focus on goals.

What about vacations?

Are you one of the many people who skipped vacation last year? While Americans have among the least number of vacation day entitlements in the world, they also seem to take less of the ones they’ve been granted!

Many people report that while their workplace has vacation entitlements in theory, in practice they are often given a hard time over taking them. Don’t do that to your employees or yourself. Foster a culture that promotes time off.

Business owners and entrepreneurs are among the worst. You fear your business can’t function without you. Or you fear your employees will think you’re not leading by example with a constant passion and unrelenting work ethic.

The reality is that you will function better as a company if you promote time off. Developing a culture that values vacation time for the wellness and productivity benefits it can bring may make your business stand out from the rest.

We do need vacation. Studies show that a change of pace boosts our mental health and creativity. Vacation helps us to relax and de-stress, it boosts our overall health, and makes us more productive upon our return to work.

Signs it’s time for a break

Here’s your first step toward change. Become more aware of the signs that you could become more productive by taking some time away from disciplined focus.

Here are a few things to watch for:

  • You feel like you work endless hours but have little to show for it.
  • You struggle to feel positive about heading to work in the morning.
  • You’re having difficulty making decisions at work and home.
  • You can’t shake the “tired” feeling. Being tired has become a regular part of your life.
  • Things that usually pick you up (like some kind of treat) aren’t helping your overall outlook anymore.
  • You find yourself more irritated than usual with staff, partners, or clients.
  • You don’t feel inspired or excited about your work anymore.
  • You feel disconnected from loved ones or friends.

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Final thoughts

We weren’t designed to work endlessly and remain productive. Even the most confident and experienced decision-maker will falter if they do not get sufficient breaks.

As the CEO or owner of your company, you are its most valuable resource. So don’t abuse that resource by operating it in ways that diminish its effectiveness over time.

Plan time off and quick breaks as a part of your success strategy. You’ll be pleased by the results.

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