The Concept of Stress and Recovery

Takeaway: Alternating periods of stress and recovery will help you feel better while you get more done of a higher level of quality in less time.

Whenever you feel “on” mentally, it’s a pretty incredible feeling. Something that you have to understand, however, is that it’s impossible to stay “on” all the time. If you build breaks into what you’re doing in a strategic way, then it can help you to avoid burnout and a lower quality of work.

The DeskTime Study

The company DeskTime did an interesting study of employees and their productivity. They specifically looked at the 10 percent of employees who were the most productive according to their metrics. Here’s what they found:

The most productive people work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 minutes.

The employees with the highest productivity ratings in fact for the most part don’t even work 8 hour days. Turns out the secret to retaining the highest level of productivity over the span of a work day is not working longer, but working smarter with frequent breaks. (Source: DeskTime)

They also show that multitasking is not the answer either:

During the period of working for 52 minutes, what you should be doing is entirely devoting yourself to working to your best capability. This is called the 100% method. Whatever you do, dedicate yourself 100%. If you’re working, then work 100%. If you’re relaxing, relax 100% – none of this checking email every few minutes while you’re on break, and none of this “I’ll just quickly check Facebook” while you’re working. Others call this “purposeful” working.

The formula for the most productive employees in the DeskTime study was very simple: Single-tasking for a period of time with breaks that allow you to relax completely. This is what we’re calling stress and recovery.

Maintaining a Strong Level of Focus

A real Holy Grail for a lot of people is being able to maintain a strong level of focus over a period of time. Not being able to focus is one of the biggest complaints that people have about themselves when it comes to productivity. Thankfully for us, the concept of stress and recovery can help you to achieve a higher level of focus almost immediately.

University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras led a study in 2011 that showed how much stronger your focus becomes with small breaks compared to having no breaks at all:

In the new study, Lleras and postdoctoral fellow Atsunori Ariga tested participants’ ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for about an hour under various conditions. The 84 study subjects were divided into four groups:

  • The control group performed the 50-minute task without breaks or diversions.
  • The “switch” group and the “no-switch” group memorized four digits prior to performing the task, and were told to respond if they saw one of the digits on the screen during the task. Only the switch group was actually presented with the digits (twice) during the 50-minute experiment. Both groups were tested on their memory of the digits at the end of the task.
  • The “digit-ignored” group was shown the same digits presented to the switch group during the task, but was told to ignore them.

As expected, most participants’ performance declined significantly over the course of the task. But most critically, Lleras said, those in the switch group saw no drop in their performance over time. Simply having them take two brief breaks from their main task (to respond to the digits) allowed them to stay focused during the entire experiment.

“It was amazing that performance seemed to be unimpaired by time, while for the other groups performance was so clearly dropping off,” Lleras said. (Source: Science Daily)

The evidence is pretty clear on this. If you want to maximize your level of focus and the amount that you get done, you have to incorporate a level of stress and recovery into your routines.