Look, the best advice anyone can give about structuring your day is to do whatever works for you. More productive in the morning? Tackle the tougher items on your to-do list before switching gears. Get a caffeine crash sometime in the mid-afternoon? Maybe that’s when you go out for your snack run.
Across the board, though, there’s one thing that holds true: No matter when you take your breaks, you should be scheduling them. That’s the conclusion of a study recently published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, which found that downtime is more refreshing — and more effective at helping people get back to the top of their game — when it’s planned in advance.
In one part of the study, the authors (all from Columbia Business School) asked participants to ping-pong back and forth between two problem-solving tasks; in another, the subjects were instructed to brainstorm creative answers to two questions with no clear solutions. For both experiments, some people were assigned specific chunks of time to work on each segment, while others could switch whenever they felt like it. And in each case, the authors explained in Harvard Business Review, those with more clear-cut schedules were more successful than their more freewheeling peers:
The issue with [the more flexible] approach seemed to be that people failed to recognize when rigid thinking crept in. Participants who didn’t step away from a task at regular intervals were more likely to write “new” ideas that were very similar to the last one they had written. While they might have felt that they were on a roll, the reality was that, without the breaks afforded by continual task switching, their actual progress was limited.
The researchers also offered some advice for how to put their findings to use: “Set [breaks] at regular intervals — use a timer if you have to. When it goes off, switch tasks: Organize your reimbursement receipts, check your email, or clean your desk, and then return to the original task,” they wrote. “If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression.” Sometimes, what feels like productivity is really just you regenerating old ideas — and sometimes, the path to real productivity leads you through a stretch of doing nothing.