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They took breaks. Contrary to what your boss would have you believe, pushing back your chair and leaving the computer behind after a few hours of intense focus can actually make you more productive. A short mid-afternoon break gives your brain the chance to process a storm of complex thoughts and perform better.
Smart people have been doing this for centuries: This infographic showing how the world's most brilliant people scheduled their days supports the idea that alternating periods of intense focus with daydreaming or relaxation can make us more productive. From Freud to Tchaikovsky, these brilliant minds carefully balanced green chunks of activity (the times they dedicated to their primary work) with orange (social), turquoise (exercise) and gray (chores) wedges.
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So much for your 9-5 job: In her new book on the subject, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), University of Oakland professor Barbara Oakley suggests humans evolved to develop two different modes of thinking — a focused, zoned-in form of concentration, which we might have used to find food or other important resources, and a diffuse mode of thought that could have helped us keep an eye out for danger. The diffuse mode, she says, is what we rely on to solve complex problems, but it's what we push away when we focus on specific tasks.
In plain English, that means our brains oscillate between periods of intense focus and times when our attention wanders, and capitalizing on this natural tendency helps us be more efficient. Though you need to zero in on certain tasks in order to get them done, zoning out for a set chunk of time between assignments helps you do a better job.
In case you need more proof, productivity app company DeskTime found the top 10% of their most productive employees work for an average of 52 minutes and take 17-minute breaks in between.
So take breaks at work: To keep your productivity up, you have to allow your brain to take breaks. It's kind of like exercising. But rather than aiming for endurance — the kind you'd need for a one-day marathon — you should be gunning for periodic sprints broken up by short periods of rest.
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And no, checking Facebook doesn't count. In order to get the brain off work, you actually need to leave it behind. Mid-afternoon is the least productive time of day, so taking a few minutes around 3 p.m. for a walk around the block is a good option.
Time to set up your coffee date with your co-worker.