Too many Americans think that they never have time for a break. Workers in the United States take the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrial world, afraid and guilty about what would happen to their jobs if they relaxed for too many seconds in a row.
American workers keep putting off fun and leisure, because work has to come first. This is why our workdays keep getting longer, why we answer emails at home, and why we don’t go out unless we have to. If we let ourselves be less vigilant over work, even for a little while, it all falls apart.
Wrong, says a new study in Psychological Science, which found that activity order doesn’t matter when it comes to taking a break. Participants in the researchers’ experiments assumed that their fun would be spoiled if they had to get back to work right afterwards— but they ended up reporting just as much enjoyment as the group who had fun after work.
In other words, even if you’re in the middle of a project, you can take your break, have your fun, and still finish your work.
Taking breaks helps us succeed
To test their theory on time off, the researchers used potato chips and spa days. (Can we sign up for this study next time?)
The participants who got to eat chips before taking a test still thought the chips were tasty — stress did not make them less delicious or enjoyable.
Similarly, the student participants who got a massage before exams underestimated their enjoyment and overestimated how much they would be thinking about exams during their spa day. In reality, students thought about their looming midterms less than 20% of the time they were at the spa.
This runs counter to the managerial belief of assigning harder tasks in the beginning of a time period and working nonstop until they’re completely done— the “eating frogs” method. Researchers believed that this mindset actually hurts employees in the long run because “waiting too long likely builds pressure to savor it, which is disruptive.” Working 15 hours for a potato chip break, in other words, puts a lot of pressure on that potato chip.
Instead, they believed that doing enjoyable tasks can boost working: “Positive emotions at the outset make some work tasks easier to endure. Indeed, breaks and recovery from work benefit workers in many ways, from increasing job satisfaction to increasing productivity.”
Our working lives are a balancing act between work and play. What this study shows is that you don’t need to get all the hard stuff out of the way before you can enjoy yourself. You can reward yourself before you’ve finished your work. You’re not being lazy; you’re actually being productive.
People who take frequent breaks are the ones who ultimately succeed in the office. Rest helps our bodies and mind repair and prepare for the long haul. So, walk outside the office, take that weeklong trip, and eat your salty chips.