June 2018: Healthier Bodies and More Productive Minds From Smart Recovery Time

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    We’ve asked this before, but until human physiology changes, it remains relevant today.

    First, how long can you hold up your outstretched arm parallel to the ground? Next, if you were to be generously paid where you earned more based on the total amount of time your outstretched arm was up each day for the next month, what strategy would you use to earn the most?

When considering the safety, comfort and performance of Knowledge Workers (aka people using computers to perform their work), the above two questions are crucial to consider, where your conclusions will have significant impact on the success of your outcomes.

It’s well-known in Biology and Biomechanics how in any activity we perform, which requires the use of our muscles, that until the human body is reengineered we will always require some Recovery Time in some proportion to our efforts in order to allow our bodies to:

  • remove waste products such as lactic acid and CO2 from muscle and tissue

  • reoxygenate and refuel muscle and tissue with nutrients

Moreover, given the same loads to work with, the amount of effort we expend will directly depend on the angular deviations of our joints.

Your resolute author here happened upon an article in Fast Company from a few years ago and which remains true and correct today: The Exact Amount Of Time You Should Work Every Day which started with these two sentences:

You know that taking frequent breaks is good for your productivity, focus, and creativity, but you just never seem to get around to it.  You feel stressed and exhausted when you hammer away at your keyboard all day, and the evidence is everywhere.

The health and safety importance of microbreaks is the realm of two decades of safety management research. In fact, taking frequent short microbreaks while working (strategically placed brief recovery breaks) has become a prominent part of law and regulation covering computer users in over 30 countries beyond California in the United States.

Moreover, this science-driven best practice is being successfully utilized in some of the most admired and profitable companies in the world, all using ErgoSuite and its earlier versions for nearly two decades.

Microbreaks: Explore The Science of What Occurs In The Body

To best explain the physiological value of integrating microbreaks into your work time while working on your computer, we’ll turn to this clearly-explained two-minute New York Times Business news video interviewing Dr. James Levine, an Endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic: Why You Should Take More Breaks at Work

                             New York Times Levine

This paper’s focus is the important value of microbreaks for safety and productivity reasons.   Therefore, within this venue we’ll rest on Dr. Levine’s explanation and forego reciting the voluminous body of science which has directly connected microbreaks to significantly reduced discomfort and injury risk.

Microbreaks: Explore The Science of What Occurs In The Mind

Although understanding how the physiology of taking microbreaks while working is centrally important for health and safety in the office, it’s equally important to understand the psychological side of microbreaks and their significant and easily measurable positive impact on productivity.

Another New York Times article, To Stay on Schedule, Take a Break, also caught our attention while reading the first paragraph:

WANT to be more productive? Keep your nose to the grindstone, or your fingers on the keyboard and your eyes on the screen. Because the more time you put in, the more you’ll get done, right?   Wrong.  A growing body of evidence shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity — and that skipping breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion.

Vigilance Decrement: Phenomenon and Reality

  • There is extensive science behind this side of microbreaks also. One of the many comprehensive studies was run in 2011 by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and published in the journal Cognition: Brief and Rare Mental ‘Breaks’ Keep You Focused: Deactivation and Reactivation of Task Goals Preempt Vigilance Decrements which explored the nature of attention and demonstrated that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.
    When To Break
    This is known as Vigilance Decrement which anyone breathing will recognize and identify with as the personal experience of “having trouble doing the same task for too long of a period of time“. After a while, you begin to lose your focus and your performance on the task degrades.

    The study’s author, Dr. Alejandro Lleras, explained of two control groups (one with task breaks and one without): “Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness“.

    Dr. Lleras continued: “It was amazing that performance seemed to be unimpaired by time, while for the other groups performance was so clearly dropping off. This study is consistent with the idea that the brain is built to detect and respond to change,” Lleras said, “and suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.

    We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!
Attention and Inattention and Attention and Inattention…

Attention Span is the total of time that a person can concentrate on a task without becoming unfocused.

  • Warning Understanding attention span is a critical prerequisite to undertake before you can effectively change employee health and safety behaviors for the long term. It’s all about moving beyond status quo (what the pack does) to actually effecting “meaningful and sustainable long term health and safety behavioral changes”.

Our human attention span varies depending on age and a few other factors generally. Based on data from ten years ago, an adult’s attention span can last for perhaps 10-15 minutes compared to children who have about 5 minutes of focus.

Newer studies suggest that the adult’s 10-15 minutes has dropped within the last ten years to 5-10 minutes today. The New Optimists (scientists) are calling it 12 minutes today while the New Pessimists are at 1 minute or less.

Attention, as most things in life, is a composite of granularity. For example, while the typical adult attention span for carrying out a task is generally between 10-15 minutes (or less), the “task” is always something which is composed of microtasks. The average adult attention span today for microtasks is about 8 seconds which has also dropped from ten years ago.

Consider “writing an email” as being a general task where each sentence and thought and correction are microtasks.

Each microbreak provides a strategic very brief recuperative period to refocus one’s mind beyond the well-established biological benefits of allowing the body recovery time.

According to Statistic Brain and the U.S. National Library of Medicine earlier this year, the following shows some interesting data on attention span (the smaller tasks):

  • Average U.S. Adult Attention Span in 2015: 8.25 seconds

  • Average U.S. Adult Attention Span in 2000: 12 seconds

  • The average attention span of a gold fish: 9 seconds

If you’re ready to rank your own attention span, let’s take a 30 second microbreak on us and the experts at Psychology Today: Test Your Attention Span!

Never Wait To Hit The Bottom of Your Barrel

Mental concentration is similar to a muscle“, says Dr. John P. Trougakos, Organizational Behavior & Human Resources Management at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management.

He continued discussing the mind: “It becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover,” he explains “much as a weight lifter needs rest before doing a second round of repetitions at the gym.

Dr. Trougakos explains how science has shown that our brains have a limited pool of psychological energy. “All efforts to control behavior, to perform and to focus draw on that pool of psychological energy. Once that energy source is depleted, we become less effective at everything that we do,” he says.

  • MicrobreaksTry to take a break before reaching the absolute bottom of your mental barrel“, Dr. Trougakos says. “Symptoms of needing time to recharge include drifting and daydreaming.” At this point, we need to return to Dr. Levine again who adds: “Mostly, though, workers don’t take enough breaks, especially breaks involving movement“.

This year, we’ve already reported here on some of Dr. Levine’s definitive studies showing that remaining sedentary throughout the day is deleterious for the health of computer users.

Good Health, Safety and Productivity – Perfect Together

The Fast Company article, which we mentioned at the beginning, went further:

Recently, the Draugiem Group, a social networking company, added to this growing body of research. They conducted an experiment to see what habits set their most productive employees apart. What they found was that the 10% of employees with the highest productivity surprisingly didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. What they did do was take regular (frequent) breaks.

As also reported in Human Resources Online: Stop what you’re doing and take a break!: “Turns out, the secret to retaining the highest level of productivity over the span of a workday is not working longer–but working smarter with frequent breaks.

HRM America reports Key to productivity: take more breaks: “It’s about working smarter, instead of working more. By managing energy instead of managing time, each worker can get more done with the time they have, ensuring they are rested and refreshed when it’s time to focus again.

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