Prestigious career lines such as management consulting and investment banking are considered to be some of the busiest professions. 70-80 hour work weeks, no weekends and lacking personal life are all the negative aspects of highly competitive occupations.
We all know that there comes a point where too much work becomes counter productive. When coffee stops working and when it’s taking you twice as long to review memos and graphs, it’s probably a sign that you need to take a break. Not listening to these warnings can result in errors, stress or in the long run maybe even your job.
For consultants who have gotten used to the busy lifestyle, taking breaks simply isn’t an option. But what if I told you that taking a break isn’t limited to blocking an entire day or weekend? Yes, taking breaks can also be done right in the office. 5-10 minutes of time away from the computer screen to recompose and refocus may be all that you need to reset your productivity levels.
What to Do With So Little Time
When we have 5-10 minutes of free time (waiting for a client to start a meeting, getting signatures for a document, or just when you need a breather) it’s common to go for the phone and check emails. Even if you have nothing to check, you may catch yourself rereading emails. If you do this often, this is a sign that you really don’t know what else to do with the little time that you have.
These days, you can accomplish more than you think in 5-10 minutes. For example, you don’t need to enroll in a class to learn a new language. Apps such as Duolingo, provides individuals with the ability to pick up French, Portuguese, Spanish and English through a series of very effective learning methods. Learning something new isn’t limited to languages. Khan Academy and Instructables are online platforms for people who want to learn new things in small doses.
If your idea of a short break doesn’t involve a gadget, you can start a journal and write down your thoughts. They don’t have to be structured and complete. The whole point of the activity is to keep your mind going in a different direction other than your current professional task.
From the beginning, we were all taught that distractions (all types) are counter productive. New studies show that this may not be all true. There are certain types of distractions that can help individuals perform better at work.
“Brent Coker, who studies online behavior at the University of Melbourne in Australia, found that people who engage in “workplace Internet leisure browsing” are about 9 percent more productive than those who don’t.”
A similar study done by Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, came up with a similar conclusion. What type of distraction is considered to be healthy?
When you’re performing a task for a long period of time, such as preparing for a presentation or typing an important document, your mind has the tendency to get burned out. To prevent this, you need to stop what you’re doing for a short period of time and find a distraction.
The studies mentioned above tested for a number of different types of distractions, from online videos to more demanding memory tasks. The results showed that non-demanding tasks can boost productivity and concentration levels, once the individual returns to what he or she was doing prior to the short break. To elaborate further, such non-demanding activities must be something that is the exact opposite of your current task.
This means that if you were computing numbers for the past couple of hours, it wouldn’t make sense to indulge in more math problems while you’re on a break. Instead, you may opt to review a few sports highlights on the computer. Moreover, if you were busy putting together a soft skills training module for entry level associates, it would be wise to immerse yourself in light technical activities.
Why do these small distractions raise productivity? The whole point of these small breaks is to keep the mind running, without letting one’s thoughts wander too far. In other words, you need to keep the momentum of your thoughts consistent, using other types of non-demanding activities. This prevents you from being burned out, as you are not fully immersed in your current work task. Additionally, your mind stays warmed up and doesn’t run cold or stale because you’re focused on something else.
The final tip when applying this method at work is to avoid turning a non-demanding activity into something completely engaging. This means you should avoid social media. Why? Because personal connections can cause deeper thoughts to surface, making your train of thoughts incredibly difficult to get out of. It is best to keep distractions light and upbeat.
Reorganization and Productivity
One of the best activities to take part when taking a break is reorganization. Just how a clean room will eventually become disorganized and messy, your desk, car, phone and computer also require regular upkeep. Failing to keep things that you frequently used organized can result in taking more time to complete tasks.
With your short break, it doesn’t hurt to erase apps that you don’t use in your phone, or place your computer files in newly created folders. This can make your work more productive, and also making you feel lighter, refreshed and less prone to error.
What about Longer Breaks?
Short breaks will get you through the arduous work week; but what about months of consistently burning the midnight oil? For these one needs longer breaks. For consultants, not all weekends will be filled with work. There will be occasions in the year when you will get to take a weekend off like everyone else. During these times, it’s best to make the most out of the hiatus by planning something fun and adventurous.
Your first instinct will be to sleep in and stay in bed all day. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, studies show that weekends filled with activities can significantly lower stress in the long run compared to sitting on the couch and watching television all day. This is because home is still a big part of one’s daily activities. It’s not anything new.
Our minds have become accustomed to the personal environment. Individuals who stay in all weekend may find themselves more prone to stress earlier in the work week, compared to people who went for a hike or ran a marathon. These new experiences have a more profound effect on perception and character, which can help professionals cope with stress.
Family and Personal Priorities
Many consultants feel that a large sacrifice in choosing a highly competitive career is balancing time with family and personal priorities. In fact, one of the main reasons why capable female consultants are not as frequently seen in higher positions or making partner is due to their choices in taking time off to take on a motherly role at home. Because of this, top consulting firms such as Accenture have started programs that boost female roles in the consulting industry.
From another perspective, if individuals are able to stay balanced and keep their personal priorities in check early in their career, then the need to step away from the industry completely in the future is less likely to happen. Messaging your significant other or children during your 5-10 minute break can help keep the communication flow running smoothly. These days, sending over flowers or a small gift can all be done in less than 5 minutes using a smartphone or computer.
For those without families, maintaining a social life can be tricky with a demanding consulting position. Instead of flipping through the newsfeed, reach out to one of your friends personally. Closely knit connections can be more beneficial over a long period of time than leaving generic comments on random online posts.
If you find yourself always feeling the need to take breaks, there may be something wrong with the quality of your allotted time alone. One quality break in the day is better than 2 or 3 breaks where you catch yourself flipping through documents while talking to your friend on the phone. A great way to ensure that you are having a quality break is by stepping away from your workstation. Don’t take a break inside your work area or conference room. Instead, go to a different part of the office such as the rooftop, break room or lobby.
To conclude, in the consulting industry, where professionals are filled with demanding schedules, it is essential to take short (and some long) breaks. In fact, the busier you are, the more it is important to incorporate some form of breaks to avoid getting burned out. Don’t forget to monitor the quality of your break in order to get the most out of this precious time.