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Improve your productivity by doing (almost) nothing

How does Mark Wahlberg spend his time each morning?

In preparing for his latest movie role, the Hollywood actor’s routine involves spending 1.5 hours in the gym, 30 minutes playing golf and 1 hour in a ‘Cryo chamber’ (a freezing cold bathroom to the rest of us).

I know of a lawyer (verified by several of his colleagues) who has to be ‘forced’ to go on vacation, but even on those holiday days he will sneak into the office after hours to carry on working. That is how he wants to manage his time and it cannot be said to be ‘wrong’. But is it productive?

Everybody manages their time differently - there is no 'one size fits all' solution to being productive.

We all know that managing our time is dictated by many factors, including the demands of clients and colleagues, availability of resources and procrastination.

I am interested in the growing body of evidence as to the effect our physical and mental wellbeing can have on our productivity. In the recent bestseller ‘Why we sleep’, Professor Matthew Walker provides powerful clinical evidence of the need for a solid 8 hours sleep every night (I know, a pipedream for many of us).

In ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ Stephen Covey argues that we should be focusing our time on matters that are important but not urgent, including time for thinking and planning.

David Allen, in his seminal work ‘Getting things Done. The art of stress-free productivity’ suggests that we should get into the habit of having nothing on our minds – broadly speaking, not using our brains as storage facilities for our work. Applying a different interpretation, should we be getting into the habit of adding breaks for ‘thinking time’ into our busy agendas?

With that in mind, here are 5 suggestions for how to take productive breaks (on those days when other work pressures allow):

1. Have a planning day. There is a remote walk on the Isle of Grain in Kent toward the sea where you rarely see a soul. Every few months I take myself there for some pure thinking time with strictly no phone - just a notebook and a pen. It is a time for planning ahead without distraction - a quiet time to review the future and put things into context.

2. Block off time. A shorter version of a planning day can be achieved by blocking off time in your diary for planning and thinking. Some people send themselves a meeting request to cement the event, but the reason for this should be communicated to colleagues and respected wherever possible.

3. Have a tomato on your desk. The Ultradian and Pomodoro (a tomato shaped timer) productivity methodologies advocate taking a short break every 25 minutes and a longer break every one and a half hours. Realistic? Sometimes not. But is sitting at a desk for hours on end without a break making you more productive?

4. Go for a walk. Research from Stanford University shows that the people who took regular walking breaks gave more creative responses on tests, such as coming up with original analogies to capture complex ideas.

5. Don’t eat ‘al desko’. Medical evidence shows that by not taking a lunch break, or not getting the right lunch, you are starving your brain and muscles of the key nutrients needed to function at peak level. Glucose, hydration and antioxidants are vital to ensure optimum productivity and concentration.

For many professionals - when their time equates to money - taking breaks is a laudable but unrealistic ambition. We all know when our work flows effortlessly and we are ‘in the zone’, but if we are all expected to do more whilst maintaining a successful work-life balance, perhaps the ‘right’ kinds of breaks may be the route to improved productivity.

Now, I’m off to my Cryo chamber…

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