Long days no breaks – how to manage them

Now that we know that working traditional 9-12 hours a day without taking breaks to recharge doesn’t work (see part I), what can we do to change it?

We constantly juggle external expectations with our well-being and energy. We are perceived as hard-working when we show up early and leave late. Yet we don’t talk much about what happens in the meantime. This is embarrassing to say, but during demanding projects it happened to me to go to the restroom to take a nap. 10-15 minutes with my eyes closed could do wonders. Coffee wouldn’t help and eventually I stopped drinking it to avoid ups and downs of energy, I’d try to stay focused struggling to keep my eyes open. In desperation, a nap seemed like the only way to keep me going. Ridiculous, right? Whom are we trying to fool if we all have the same goal – getting things done? When I shared the story with my friends, to my surprise, they weren’t surprised at all. They all came up with various forms of work hacks. To my genuine surprise I also learnt that Einstein, Dali, Churchill or Kennedy loved napping – and did so daily.

Ultimately, the only thing that should matter is how well you perform. And as Richard Branson said on introducing unlimited vacation time at Virgin – it is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off, the assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel 100 per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business.

Find your win-win – simple steps to start with

On average we don’t have that much choice (or luck), but can improve our work lives to better manage our productivity and well-being. You don’t have to choose between taking care of your health and your work, you can do both. I’d argue that it’s even more important for women whose hormones get out of balance if their days are too stressful for too long – leading to problems with feeling low and looking unhealthy, being irritated and anxious, or lower confidence levels – and it’s only tip of the iceberg. Long-term imbalance can lead to heart problems, depression or even infertility.

What to do when you have to spend at least 8-9 hours a day at the office? It can be managed quite easily:

  1. Work in intervals: try to plan to work 60-75 minutes followed by a 10-15 minutes break. Remember how we used to change classrooms back in school? It’s important to unplug for a couple of minutes to let your brain relax. It’s a muscle, and as any muscle – it needs a break before working our again. Move around and chat with your friends, go outside to grab a coffee and some fresh air, stretch.
  2. Take time to eat your lunch off the desk – can you step off and maybe go outside? If not, try not to work, simply focus on your lunch, and don’t hurry eating. By eating slowly and digesting properly, you avoid sudden energy drops after your meal.
  3. Got a meeting – go for a walk. Being creative and arranging walking meetings instead of booking a conference room for a one-on-one meeting has worked wonders for me. Think about it: we sleep on average 7,7 hours, and spend 9,3 hours sitting. Walking meetings are practiced by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and so many others.
  4. Bring your yoga mat and stretch for a couple of minutes. I love this one – stretching for even 5 minutes around lunchtime elevates back pain, gets your blood moving and takes your mind off work. If you can take a break during the day to squeeze in 30 minutes workout, it would also work great.
  5. Be mindful about your snacks and drinks – stay well hydrated drinking water with lemon, green and rooibos tea, and snack on fruit, nuts, easily digestible foods. Try to limit coffee (2 cups a day should be enough), soda drinks and sugary snacks – they only help for 15-30 minutes and then you need to deal with energy fatigue.

These are simple ways to boost your productivity and keep your energy flowing. Try some of them and see for yourself that they change the way you feel and work.

Time for ‘the talk’

Realistically not everyone can have flexible working arrangements – such as working from home part time – without changing their jobs. How about you, would it be possible to do what you do remotely? Look around you: are others working from home? Coming late or leaving early? Taking gym breaks? Even if they aren’t, it doesn’t mean you can’t be the first one.

The best way to approach it is to look at it in terms of your shared interests. Can you do the same job, or better, while being more flexible? If your boss is someone you respect and trust, simply talk to them in a casual way, outlining why it’s important and how it won’t affect your performance in any negative way.

I think people are usually concerned about a long-term commitment and agreeing to an arrangement that may not work, but would be difficult to reverse once a precedent is set. You may suggest to work from home one or two days a month. If it goes well, maybe you can continue or have a day a week, which is becoming increasingly popular in many companies.

The key is to make your manager feel comfortable showing that you are looking for a win-win scenario, where you are fully committed to your work, but know that you would benefit greatly from having more flexibility. And to be fully committed – otherwise it will be very short-lived and trust, once broken, takes ages to build back.

My experience has been that when I work from home, I work less in terms of hours, but get much more done. If I’m tired, I go for a walk or take a 15 minutes nap, but since I’m grateful to have such a flexibility I usually end up working longer or doing things I wouldn’t necessarily do at the office. I feel accomplished, get more done – isn’t that a win-win?

How about you? Do you think that we can benefit from relaxing the working culture?


The Economist 1843: Why it pays to work less 

Scientific American: Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain

Ariana Huffington: Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life

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