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September 01, 2023

Taking the Lead: Taking Breaks

Linda A. Klein and John Hinton IV
This is a call to be mindful of whether you are getting the most productivity out of your workday.

This is a call to be mindful of whether you are getting the most productivity out of your workday.

This spring we had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Daniel H. Pink, author of several best-selling books including To Sell Is Human and The Power of Regret. After discussing several of the trends that are creating turbulence in the workplace, he offered five suggestions for small changes that could have a substantial, positive impact in our work. All five were commendable, but there was one in particular that we wanted to share with you.

Pink described a study of Danish students showing that their performance on standardized tests significantly decreased the later in the day that they took the test. However, the study also showed that a 20-to-30-minute break improved the performance of students testing later in the school day. The break didn’t fully offset the effects of the mental fatigue, but the improvement was significant enough for the researchers to call for school administrators to make time for breaks during the school day—not to encourage idleness, but to improve performance.      

As with many studies, the results demonstrate that which should be common sense to us all––as the day wears on, our mental resources become fatigued. A good break from the mental grind has a restorative effect. However, that truth is easy to forget or to discount. Pink then brought home the point by raising two challenges. First, he challenged us to think of breaks in a different light by stating “Don’t think of breaks as deviations from your performance. Think of them as part of your performance.” Second, he challenged us to schedule a 15-minute break each workday for the rest of the year. 

The second challenge may be more aspirational than achievable. Of course, there will be days when work demands that you stay at your desk. However, Pink’s first challenge is a call to a mind shift that makes sense. Breaks can feel like a waste of time. After all, you are suspending your work. It is easy to fall into the trap of working without ceasing because of pride or guilt and to assume that we are being more productive. Nevertheless, we have all experienced a time when we worked on a project to the point where we had to step away, only to find that after a short stoppage we returned to the task with a new energy and perspective that enabled us to complete the task.   

It is worth exploring whether there are opportunities to improve our overall performance by investing a short window in the workday to allow our minds to rest and recharge. One of the great things about Pink’s challenge is that it only requires 15 minutes of your day. Moreover, that break probably doesn’t cost you 15 minutes of productive time. Knowing that you have a break scheduled can make it easier to forgo the temptation to engage in some of the mini breaks that rob us of our day without any appreciable benefits, such as checking our phones.         

Pink also provided recommendations on how to make the most of our breaks based on the research that he had reviewed. He said:

  1. Something beats nothing.
  2. Moving beats stationary.
  3. Social beats solo.
  4. Outside beats inside.
  5. Fully detached beats semi-detached (i.e., no screen time).

Indeed, that list presents additional opportunities to redeem the time by getting some exercise and building relationships with your colleagues. If you as a firm leader spent 15 minutes a day taking a walk with younger attorneys and staff to discuss things other than work, it may pay dividends for morale, trust and continuity, not to mention improve your performance for the remainder of each day. 

This is not a call to work less or to waste time. Rather it is a call to be mindful of whether you are getting the most productivity out of your workday and to consider whether you and your colleagues might be better lawyers if you take a short break than if you don’t. We believe Pink is on to something with his idea. If you agree and try it, let us know whether you agree. 

Linda Klein

Senior Managing Shareholder, Baker Donelson

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. [email protected]

John Hinton IV

Shareholder, Baker Donelson

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. [email protected]

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