How to Know When to Take a Break

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How do you know when to relax?  There are two typical answers to this question, and I’m here to say that both are wrong.  If you thought the question was silly and the answer was obvious, you probably picked one of the two.

The two common answers are:

  1. When you’ve finished your work.
  2. When you’re tired.

Why the “Rest When Finished” Approach Fails…

This is the more macho, self-disciplined approach to work through fatigue.  It works great, assuming you have a light to medium workload.  It’s the approach I use built into my Weekly/Daily Goals system, because it’s simple and most of the time it does it’s job.

Where this approach fails, however, is when you have a really intense schedule.  When the amount of work you have to do is nearing or currently exceeding your “burnout” threshold, this formula is dangerous.  When “working until you’re finished” means working non-stop for 72 hours, you will run out of energy far before you pass out from exhaustion.

Energy management is the principle that the energy and focus you can bring to your work matters more than the time put in.  And when your schedule is threatening to kill you, strategic breaking can help you survive.  Not only that, but it can boost your energy so you actually accomplish more in a smaller amount of time.

Where the “Rest When Finished” Works

If you have:

  • A light to medium schedule.  (Definition: you’re able to get 8 hours of sleep, and you aren’t skipping meals to do work…)
  • An intense schedule, but for less than three days.  (If you can collapse and sleep for an entire weekend once you meet your big deadline, just endure the insanity.)

…then the “rest when finished” approach is a good rule of thumb.

Why the “Rest When I Feel Like It” Approach Sucks…

The alternate strategy of resting when I feel like it works great when:

  • You have so much passion/enthusiasm for what you’re doing you are likely to become a workaholic.
  • You never have problems with procrastination or laziness.

If you’re a regular person, like me, those two above probably don’t apply to you.  I’m passionate about what I do, but I still need to focus myself in order to work.  I also have bouts of laziness and procrastination like the rest of us.  If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be very good at writing articles for overcoming those problems.

The “rest when tired” approach fails because it is hard to separate genuine resting with procrastination.  You might be tired, and an energy boost could improve performance.  Or you might just be lying to yourself in order to put off work.  It’s a thin line.

Strategic Resting for Improved Performance

The above two approaches can work as a rule of thumb.  But they both have their weaknesses, and times when they break down.  Strategic resting works better when the “rest when finished” approach is driving you insane, but the “rest when tired” approach just means procrastination.

On a short time span, there are really only two kinds of breaks you can take:

  1. Short breaks to rest during the day.
  2. Breaks that finish a day and begin the next morning.

When to Take a Short Break

Here’s my rule for taking short breaks:

Whenever I hit a roadblock in my energy and can’t accomplish anything, I set myself a timer for 15-30 minutes.  My goal is to keep working throughout this time.  Once the timer is done, I see if I’ve made any progress.  If I haven’t, I know it’s time to take a break.

This rule helps because it prevents you from quitting whenever you hit a small obstacle.  However, it also gives you permission to take a break when you’ve hit a huge wall and can’t push through it from your current direction.  In those cases, a small break can give you some space to figure out the problem.

When to Quit for the Day

Quitting for the day is the best rest you can get.  However, it’s costly, so don’t use it when:

  1. Your deadline is tomorrow (or tonight).
  2. You’re still early in the day.  (Take a short break instead)
  3. You can rework your daily to-do list.

The last point deserves mention.  Sometimes you can burn yourself out by setting your goals too high for what you want to accomplish.  If your to-do list is impossible, that will kill your motivation and energy.

When that happens, it’s best to rework your to-do list.  Make it achievable by the end of the day.  Don’t remove items off your to-do list until you’ve given serious effort towards it.  However, if you’ve misjudged what you can do in one day, it’s better to change your list than give up.

If it’s later in the day, you’ve taken short breaks and still can’t recover your energy and your deadline isn’t for a few days, that’s a better time to call it quits.

Don’t Waste Day-Ending Breaks

If you’re going to quit for the day, rest fully.  Set a big to-do list for the next day and plan to start early again.  You’ve postponed work to rest strategically.  That will only be successful if you actually regain your energy.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Go to sleep early.
  2. Be in a relaxing environment.  Don’t just sit in a state of passive stress.
  3. Spend time outlining your plan of attack for tomorrow.  Planning your next day gives you better odds you’ll have energy to accomplish it.

Strategic resting is the plan to use when simpler rules fail.  When those simple rules for productivity fail, a more well-thought approach to breaking can save you.


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