A little while ago I was, admittedly, mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook news feed, when a video caught my eye. “This will make you fall in love with Justin Bieber!” The clickbaity title shouted at me – so, like any good mindless Facebook scroller, I clicked.
The video turned out to be a Carpool Karaoke clip with Bieber and The Late Late Show’s James Corden. The only moment that really stood out for me was when the Canadian singer was presented with a Rubik’s Cube. Full credit to him, he solved it in just a few minutes.
This stood out because I realised it had been around 20 years since I’d attempted to solve a Rubik’s Cube. I suddenly had an urge to find one – and a mere two days later, when I was in a toy store buying some presents, I saw a pile of them on the counter.
I’ve been fiddling with this clever cube ever since – and, since I keep it on my desk, it’s been giving me a reason to take short breaks from my work.
I have started to defer to the static device when I need some time out from my screen, or when I need to think through a problem or approach.
Not only does the Rubik’s Cube give my eyes a break, but for a few minutes, I completely forget about work, deadlines, problems and health content. My mind becomes utterly caught up in solving the cube (which I still haven’t done yet, mind you – and I’m resisting the urge to watch how-to videos).
I’ve been working on some complex medical content lately – including projects for a cancer research foundation and a cardiac health website – in addition to running my health writing courses.
The content is scientific, the research is demanding and the work is intense – I’m sure most health writers are all too familiar with these scenarios.
I felt so much more refreshed after my little Rubik’s Cube sessions. My mind feels clearer. I don’t feel burned out by 3.30pm and I don’t have headaches from too much screen time. I also notice that, despite taking short breaks here and there, I am still on top of my to-do list.
This is a massive realisation for me, because I tend to be someone who works non-stop, from preschool drop-off to pickup. I know I should take breaks, but I rarely do. When I’m writing, I feel like I can’t stop or I’ll lose momentum. I actually think, though, that taking these short breaks has improved my momentum. And it appears I’m not the only one who feels this way.
The ultimate formula for productivity
Around September last year, a widely-publicised study claimed to have found the ultimate formula for productivity: 52 minutes of computer work, followed by 17 minutes of rest.
One of the articles, published on The Atlantic, sums up the productivity predicament very nicely:
“The scientific observation underlying these nearly-too-good-to-be-true findings is that the brain is a muscle that, like every muscle, tires from repeated stress. Many of us have a cultural image of industriousness that includes first-in-last-out workers, all-nighters, and marathon work sessions. Indeed, there are many perfectly productive people that go to the office early, leave late, and never seem to stop working. But the truth about productivity for the rest of us is that more hours doesn’t mean better work. Rather, like a runner starting to flag after a few miles, our ability to perform tasks has diminishing returns over time. We need breaks strategically served between our work sessions.”
Fast Company, who also reported on the study, make a valid point: “The study highlights what researchers have been saying for years—that our brains simply weren’t built to focus for eight-full hours a day.”
It makes sense that our brains need rest and play time – yet, being writers, we find it very hard to take breaks. We might feel like we’re on a roll, and can’t stop or we’ll forget where we were going. We might feel like we’re cheating our employer – or ourselves, if we’re freelancing – by taking so many frequent breaks.
In fact, when writers at Fast Company experimented with this formula, they found that it “wasn’t as great” as they had expected after all.
Specifically, they found the 52/17 routine difficult to stick to, impractical for their tasks, and somewhat guilt-inducing.
The Fast Company article writer concluded with this sensible advice: “While the regimented method of working for 52 minutes and then taking 17-minute breaks didn’t work for us, it’s better than sitting in front of a computer for eight hours straight. I think it’s fair to suggest that we all compromise and meet somewhere in the middle.”
So while the 52/17 method might not work for you either, it’s definitely worth experimenting with the practice of regular break-taking.
Take more breaks. Spend more time away from your screen. See if it helps you to work better or work smarter. Maybe it won’t, but try it out – and, in doing so, you may find your own unique formula for productivity.
If the Rubik’s Cube turns out to be the gateway to my ultimate formula for productivity, then I guess that clickbaity title wasn’t too far off the mark.