We need to relax! Or at least switch gears

The New York Times article over the weekend entitled “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive” really hit home for me, and not just because I really enjoy a good afternoon nap. The article reviews current research to suggest that not only should people take more time to vacation and sleep, but also that people tend to be most productive in 90-minute “bursts” of energy. Further, they note the move towards a more relaxed work environment, such as the culture that Google promotes.

This article matches my own experiences well. I try to work from home (“research days”) at least one or two days a week, and I find I’m much more productive on these days with some of the big ticket items on my to-do list. While part of the effect may be fewer meetings, I’ve also found that I’m able to move in and out of “hard” work periods: I take a break to start dinner, I eat lunch and watch an episode of “Jeopardy,” and I take a break in the afternoon to exercise. I usually save the really mentally-intensive tasks – writing and reviewing academic papers, developing lectures, etc. – for these days when I have longer periods when can really focus.

But at the same time, life isn’t that idyllic generally, nor can an academic only work 4.5 hours a day and do well (or even a 9-5 day, regardless of what some at Forbes believe). So another method of dealing with stress for me has been “switching gears”: altering between writing a literature review, grading papers, committee meetings, writing emails, reading literature, doing data analysis…the list goes on and on. Having a sense of how much mental effort each tasks takes can help prioritize: when I’m burned out from trying to explain my research findings in a clear, concise way, I can switch to answering student emails or developing a new course assignment. If I can’t grade another paper, I can switch to reading emerging literature in the field. Luckily, there are always more than enough tasks that require my attention (or any academic’s!) that I can pick and choose depending on what I’m up for. So even my “research days” when I’m lucky might only consist of 5 hours of focused research and writing, but still usually end up being at least 8 hour days (trust me, email alone can take a lot of time)!

However, I think this article’s most important purpose is to remind us – academic or not – that taking a break isn’t lazy, it’s important. And many “breaks” are very productive in their own right, even if they aren’t checking things off a “to-do” list: talking to colleagues about what they’re up to, reading news stories to see what’s happening outside the office, going for a run, or even seeing what friends are up to on Facebook. So is going “offline” for a bit – not responding to the “ding” of a new email or update, and enjoying a true night off. Because we all know, the next day (whether it’s the weekend or not), we’re going to be back at work.

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