Consider your typical workday: do you wake up feeling tired?
Do you take a quick peek at e-mails before you eat breakfast? Do you tend to
skip breakfast on most days, or grab something lacking in nutrition on the drive
to work?  Do you work through lunch, eat
at your desk or skip it altogether? (More than one-third of American workers regularly
eat lunch at their desk.) Do you run from meeting to meeting with no breaks in
between? At the end of the work day, do you leave later than you like, but then
still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?  How about vacations – do you really get away?
 (More than 50% of working Americans assume
they will work during their vacations, and a Harris interactive survey found
that Americans left an average of 9 vacation days unused in 2012 – up from 6
days in 2011.) 

Many Americans are unable to juggle what feel like overwhelming
demands and achieve any kind of work-life balance.  In many companies rewards go to those who push
hard and continuously over time and downtime is seen as “wasted” time.  Not so, says some surprising research.  A new and growing body of studies shows that
naps, vacations, daytime workouts, longer sleep hours and more frequent
vacations (activities referred to as “strategic renewal”) are far more
effective in boosting productivity, job performance and improved health:

  • Daytime naps improve performance.  A study of air traffic controllers showed
    that when they were given 40 minute nap breaks, sleeping an average of 19
    minutes, they performed better on tests of vigilance and reaction time.
  • Longer naps are even more beneficial.  A sleep researcher at University of California
    at Riverside found that a 60-90 minute nap improved memory test results as much
    as did eight hours of sleep.
  • Ernst & Young did an internal study of
    its employees and found that for each added 10 hours of vacation time taken,
    year-end performance ratings from supervisors improved by 8%.  Employees who took more frequent vacations
    tended to be less likely to leave the firm.
  • Stanford researcher Cheri Mah found that when
    she got male basketball players to sleep 10 hours a night, their performance
    dramatically improved with free throw and three- point shooting increasing by
    9% on average. 

The Greater Our Performance Demands, the Greater Our
Need for Renewal

When we’re under pressure at work, we tend to follow our
impulse to work harder.  But human beings
are not designed to expend energy continuously; we are made to pulse between
bursts of energy and recovery time.  You
may have read that human sleep cycles follow a nightly rhythm of sleep for 90
minutes moving from light to deep sleep and back again.  Scientists have discovered that this same
cycle repeats itself during our waking
hours.  The difference is that during the
day we move from a state of mental alertness into physiological fatigue every
90 minutes.  Our bodies are telling us to
take a break, but we too often override that signal and pump ourselves up with
caffeine, sugar and our own internal stress hormones of adrenaline and

Working in 90-minute intervals enhances and improves productivity.  We can learn this from watching star performers (musicians, athletes, actors) who practice without interruption for
sessions of 90 minutes.  They start in
the morning, take a break between sessions, and seldom work for more than four
and a half hours in any given day.  To get
the full benefit of their long-term practice, they avoid exhaustion and give
themselves time to recover.

In a recent NY Times interview, Tony Schwartz, CEO of The
Energy Project, described how he incorporated these principles into a business
that now helps companies like Google, Cleveland Clinic and Genentech, stating “
Our own offices are a laboratory…renewal is central to how we work. We
dedicated space to a renewal room in which employees can nap, meditate or
relax. We have a spacious lounge where employees hang out together and snack on
healthy foods we provide.  We encourage
workers to take renewal breaks throughout the day and to leave the office for
lunch…we allow people to work from home several days a week …to avoid
debilitating rush-hour commutes. Our workdays end at 6 pm and we don’t expect
anyone to answer e-mail in the evening or on weekends.”

The workplace of the near future will look at time off as an
investment in productivity and at renewal as a key role in creating employee
retention, job satisfaction and a healthier life style.  In the meantime, consider the power of
renewal in how you schedule your work day:

  1. Use 90-minute cycles starting when your
    energy is at its highest in the day (for most of us that is in the morning) and
    follow each with a break.
  2. Get up from your desk; take a short walk
    outside, or inside the building; go to the break room. 
  3. Go out for lunch
  4. Leave the office at a reasonable closing
    time and resist e-mail after hours. 
  5. Take the full amount of vacation allowed by
    your company’s policy. 

The energy of what you bring to your work is
far more important than the hours you work. 
By managing your energy wisely it is possible to get more done in less time and with respect for the natural rhythm of your life.