June 16, 2018
An important component of our macOS application Lifeline is taking sufficient breaks, and in this article, I’ll explain why.
Working 50+ hour weeks is counter-productive. Research shows chronic overwork leads to more mistakes, diminishing output, and health issues. So why do we do it? It feels right working more seems like the right thing to do for those who want to get sh*t done. Like the multitasker who feels more effective the more he multitasks, the overworker feels more productive the more hours he puts in. But both are worse off. It’s a mental delusion, a feeling that’s not grounded in reality. Both the multitasker and the overworker end up with less progress and more mistakes.
Most modern societies celebrate overwork. Top CEOs boost about their grit, startups are supposedly built on 24/7 effort, and every office is home to plenty of work martyrs. Once more there’s a similarity here with the multitasking myth: only 3% of the population thrives when multitasking, everyone else just sucks at it. I believe it’s the same with overwork. There are probably a few people, like Elon Musk, who can stay at the top of their game while working 100 hours per week consistently. For the rest of us, it’s a recipe for disaster—mistakes, stress, health problems. So we feel like overwork leads to higher productivity, and society celebrates the work martyr based on the example of a few well-known outliers. Unfortunately, there are two more factors pushing us towards unreasonable hours. Tech hooks our modern devices and apps are designed to keep us hooked, as author Nir Eyal laid out in his book of the same name. Modern technology makes us sit at our desks for hours on end without pause. It glues our faces to tiny screens even when we’re walking a busy street. And we now carry our work with us everywhere we go, all the time. No wonder it's harder than ever to disconnect and get some rest.
According to an old fable, when you put a frog in a bowl of water and slowly heat it up, he will not notice the gradual change in temperature, stay put, and eventually die. While we now know that frogs do actually notice the change in temperature and jump away, it is a good metaphor for what’s happening to us and work. We didn’t go from 40-hour-weeks to pulling 50+ hours weekly overnight. Neither did our phones turn from dumb to smart within a few months. All these changes happened over a period of many years, slowly changing the reality of our lives, while our cultural norms and work habits have remained the same (in an article for Blinkist I’ve once made the case our thinking is still stuck in the Industrial Revolution).
Breaks are the most under-appreciated “productivity hack” of our times. Research shows knowledge workers who take regular breaks are more productive, more creative, healthier, and happier. Our brains can’t sustain optimal concentration for longer than 90 minutes at a time. After that period, our grey mass gets tired, and results from our efforts diminish quickly. In fact, even 90 minutes of consecutive focus are too much for the untrained mind. Aiming for a break every hour is most suitable for most people. Observing this simple habit—of taking a break away from the screen every hour—is the first step in living the work less, do more philosophy. It’s also one of the simplest and most effective ways to mitigate the factors driving us towards overwork described in the first half of this article.
While the idea of taking sufficient breaks is simple, it’s hard to implement into our daily routines:
We’ve developed Lifeline to address these issues. Its sole purpose is to help you build a healthier work rhythm throughout your day. It works automatically and nudges you at the right moments, but without ever becoming annoying like an RSI timer. It also visualizes your days in real-time so you can spot trends in your work habits and get a sense of your ideal working rhythm.