We tend to think of downtime as something that should only happen outside of office hours. But what if we told you that you should be taking downtime at work to switch off, indulge in distractions, and let your mind wander? What if we argued that it would make you more productive — and handed you some convincing science to back it up?
Well, read on, because that’s exactly what we’re about to do. Let’s take a look at why downtime at work actually boosts your productivity and give you tips for making it work for you.
7 Reasons to Take More Downtime at Work
Below are seven reasons why building in downtime at work really works, according to science. In other words, we’re giving you a valid excuse to take more breaks on the job. You can thank us later.
1. Downtime can help consolidate memory and learning
Do you sometimes feel like you learn something new at work… only to forget it right away? You might just need more downtime.
In a 2012 experiment, people who took a 10-minute break after reading a story had better recall — even after seven days — than those who went straight onto another task.
Plus, another study found that giving our brains time offline to process memories improves our ability to learn related information in the future.
Tip: Build in some downtime at work after learning something new to give your brain time to consolidate the information.
For example: Let’s say you’ve just read a chapter of a book. Rather than skip straight into something else, take a little break (one where you’re not doing anything mentally challenging — you might go make a cup of coffee or take a short walk). This gives you time to absorb and consolidate what you’ve read.
Bonus tip: Work schedules are hectic, so don’t leave your breaks to chance. Get them on the calendar or in your planner.
A great option for making sure your breaks happen? Panda Planner. Designed to increase your happiness and productivity, Panda Planner is a scientifically-backed tool for tracking breaks, habits, meetings, and more.
2. Diversions can help you stay focused
What happens when you briefly switch out of a task to do something else? You lose your focus, right? But, surprisingly, that might not be such a bad thing.
One study set participants a 50-minute task. Some performed the task without breaks or diversions, while others were twice diverted out of the task to report when a particular number showed on screen. Those whose focus was unbroken actually performed worse. Why? Because focusing on a single task for too long wears you down mentally. In this way, a little bit of downtime or brief distraction can bring you back on task refreshed and re-focused.
Tip: Unless you’re deep in a state of flow, allow yourself to take short breaks from focused tasks. Says Alejandro Lleras, lead researcher on the study above: “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!”
3. Downtime at work can prevent decision fatigue
Making decisions takes mental effort. And like any form of effort, if you do it for too long you get tired. This is called decision fatigue.
A famous study from 2011 found that Israeli judges were more likely to give favorable rulings straight after their meal breaks. If they went for too long without a break, decision fatigue set in and they’d default to the easiest option (saying no to parole).
If you’ve ever had to choose between salad and pizza while tired and hangry, you can no doubt relate. It’s the same at work: Mental exhaustion leads to poor decisions. Breaks and downtime give space to make better ones.
Tip: If you have an important decision to make at work, try to put it off until after you’ve had a break. Avoid rash decision-making while overly tired or stressed.
4. Letting your mind wander can promote creative problem-solving
There’s a reason why you have your best ideas in the shower… Mind wandering allows your brain to make connections and come up with novel ideas that you might otherwise never think of. When your mind wanders, you have more of those “aha!” moments.
Studies support this idea. When people are given downtime to simply let their minds wander, they perform better at coming up with creative solutions.
Tip: When you’re in need of creative inspiration or have a problem that needs to be creatively solved, give yourself some time for mind wandering.
According to the research, this happens best when doing an undemanding task rather than completely resting, as undemanding tasks encourage your mind to wander. Cleaning, anyone? Let’s face it — your desk isn’t going to tidy itself.
5. Downtime in nature can decrease stress and improve creativity
You hardly need someone in a lab coat to point out that being in nature makes you feel good. But let’s dig into some research anyway: Contact with nature promotes well-being. It replenishes your ability to focus and makes you more creative. Heck, even having some trees outside your office window helps with job stress.
So if you can take your work breaks outside in a natural setting, you’ll reap even greater rewards.
Tip: Make sure your downtime in nature really is downtime by also ditching the devices. One of the above studies found that “immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creative, problem-solving task by a full 50%”.
6. Taking time out to socialize can improve work performance
Human relationships are important. Like, number one contributor to happiness kind of important. So building social connections at work has its benefits.
One study found that when employees took “micro-breaks” to relax and socialize they were in a better mood, which, in turn, predicted greater sales performance.
Meanwhile, research by Gallup found that more social time contributes to a happier day: “The greatest gain in mood comes from using 20%-40% of ‘awake time’ socially,” they report. And workplaces benefit from happier workers. “When all the other well-being and engagement elements are going right, social interactions can help the organization improve, to be more innovative.”
Tip: Socialize your downtime at work. Taking a few moments to chat with coworkers not only builds healthy relationships and thus greater life satisfaction, it also allows you to bounce ideas around and find solutions to problems.
7. Downtime with meditation can boost attentiveness, creativity, and mood
Sit with your legs crossed, say “ommm”, and you’ll magically turn into a productivity superhero. Well, okay, we’re exaggerating. But meditation has so many well-documented benefits that it’s well worth making it a regular downtime activity.
Meditation is great for health and reduces anxiety and depression. Certain types of meditation boost creative thinking. Even brief sessions of mindfulness meditation have been shown to have super benefits like reducing stress and fatigue.
And when you’re healthy, happy, and have a clear mind, you’re bound to be more productive. So hey — maybe we weren’t exaggerating that much after all.
Tip: Try making meditation a regular activity on your work breaks. As little as a few minutes will still provide you with benefits. You can make the process even easier by using a meditation app or subscribing to a meditation podcast.
Ready to take time out in order to get more done?
Now you know the benefits of downtime. Or some of them, anyway. If we listed them all, you’d be here all day. The important thing to note is that it’s not worth being a workplace martyr: Permanently affixing yourself to your desk will only lead to burnout.
On the other hand, engaging in downtime at work — whether it’s a short walk, coffee with a colleague, or even just doing the dishes — will help to keep you refreshed, focused, and creative.
For more ideas on what to do with your work breaks as well as how long they should be and how often to take them, visit our post on how to take breaks effectively.
Your turn: Do you make sure you get enough downtime at work?
Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.