The harder you work, the more you get done, and the more value you create. Right?
It turns out that life is not that linear. Working long hours, non-stop, is not the recipe for value creation. Nor is working without a break for months and years. Every once in a while, you need to pause, step back, and reflect (or just take it easy).
It may not just help your career, but it might be a life-altering move. Here is why.
Taking a break has many benefits, whether we look at it on the scale of a day or zoom out and look at our life over the years. Here are some of those benefits:
1. Without a break, you keep going – but often, in the wrong direction
When you are stuck in your life, you try harder and you often become very busy. And a busy mind rarely comes up with fresh ideas. When we don’t pause and re-evaluate, we tend to keep doing things that are not working without realizing it. I have done it myself in my startup life, and so have many entrepreneurs I know.
In fact, people often spend most of their lives mindlessly, and then one day, when they hit middle age, they realize that life just passed by – they ignored their health, relationships, and well-being, pursuing things that turned out to be somewhat inconsequential.
And unless we take a pause, we can’t course-correct. Speed is not everything – direction also matters. So to do the right things, you absolutely need to pause frequently.
2. Pause can help you solve hard problems
Sometimes, you get stuck on a hard problem and can’t see a path to a solution. At that point, you need a breakthrough idea. But if we keep trying harder and getting frustrated, the chance of a breakthrough idea recedes even more.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way. It turns out that there are two modes of solving a problem – the focused mode and a diffuse mode.
Most of us are only aware of the focused mode because that is all we have tried. But in the diffuse mode, when our mind is wandering or out of focus (even sleepy), our brain can solve problems unconsciously, making connections between disparate ideas.
Here is a personal experience I had: A student once asked me a tough IITJEE physics problem. It was so hard that I first thought that the question was wrong! Anyway, I could not answer his question.
But that evening, when I was out for a run, the solution popped into my mind so clearly that I stopped my run, called that student, and dictated the solution end-to-end on phone.
Of course, there is no guarantee that a solution will come up but it is worth trying. In fact, there is a story that Edison used to sit on a chair with steel balls in his hand, allowing his mind to go to sleep. But as he was falling asleep, the steel balls would fall and wake him up, so that he could capture the ideas in his mind in that state. Here is an article in Scientific American you might find of interest.
So even for problem-solving, taking frequent breaks can be a smart move.
3. The problem of burnout
When we work for months and years without sufficient breaks, we risk burnout even if we otherwise like our jobs. Our mind needs to refresh itself.
From the research on learning effectiveness, one technique that has consistently emerged is ‘interleaving’, which is just mixing things up. When we mix different topics, our mind is refreshed, and our learning efficacy spikes. I can personally vouch for this.
So when you take a break and do things unrelated to work, you are not being lazy – you are refreshing your mind. And when you get back to work, you are likely to do a much better job.
4. Pause helps you learn better
When we are learning something, there is a temptation to do long sessions and quickly hit our learning goals. But it turns out that after about 30-50 minutes or so, your brain gets saturated. The effort involved in learning consumes certain neurotransmitters and glucose, which have to be replenished. If we don’t take heed and keep learning, we will not be really absorbing anything.
Hence we need a break.
In summary, be it for learning, efficiency, problem-solving, creativity, or even living a meaningful life, we need breaks. To do more, sometimes, do nothing. Hell, even machines need maintenance breaks!
But what if you are really, really busy? Well, you need those breaks even more.
So what is your plan to take a break?