Want to Succeed in Your MBA Program? Take Better Breaks

It’s not difficult to predict what many of our BSchools readers will think at first upon reading this article’s title:

Yeah, we know how tough MBA programs can be, especially for first-year students. After all, some of us at BSchools are economics and business school graduates, and we’ve covered graduate management education for four years.

But actually, what we’re arguing is far broader. Believe it or not, the radical new science of optimizing break time can promote success not only in MBA coursework but in any focused activity. And if you care about your success in grad school and your career during the next 40 years, you can’t afford to miss out on learning about this fascinating new research.

Investigating the Productivity-Break Time Relationship

In 2014, managers at a European information technology conglomerate known as the Draugiem Group grew curious about the habits of the firm’s most productive employees. Because its subsidiary DeskTime had developed one of the first time-tracking and workflow management platforms for iPhones and Android devices, Draugiem’s mobile software enabled the firm to correlate each employee’s actions with their productivity more precisely than desktop computers could measure. Undoubtedly, management also suspected that they could exploit interesting research findings for publicity.

Draugiem’s project wasn’t the first such study of the relationship between productivity and breaks from work. The human factors literature shows that as early as 1985, an experiment took place at Clarkson University in New York State that identified an optimal rest break schedule. Unfortunately, that study has little relevance for today’s MBA students and knowledge workers because it comprised a laboratory analysis of only ten college students performing physically demanding tasks.

However, in 1999 Cornell University conducted an experiment with more relevance for MBAs. This study took place at the Wall Street office of New Century Global, an insurance underwriter eventually bought out by the Charlotte-based specialty insurance distributor Amwins in a 2002 rollup merger.

For this study, Cornell selected 21 subjects from NCG’s executive, underwriting, accounting, and customer service groups who typically all used desktop computers for six hours daily. The project then applied an early type of ergonomic management software (EMS) that prompted the subjects to take breaks based on their time on task. It was a forerunner of modern EMS applications like OnTime PRO, which can even lock a Macintosh computer periodically for brief intervals to force a workaholic user to take regular breaks.

Nonetheless, Cornell’s study was flawed. Although discretionary rest breaks produced a statistically significant 13 percent typing accuracy improvement at a purported $300,000 value to the firm, the study failed to identify an optimal rest break schedule. Moreover, the research faces criticism for bias.

Incredibly, Cornell’s principal investigator disclosed a significant conflict: before the study, he actually bought stock in the company that developed the EMS software. But he never sold it, continuing to own all the stock throughout the study—even while writing his final report. Perhaps that’s why no scholarly journal ever published this work.

Productivity Findings Draugiem Never Expected

In other words, with no adequate research on point, Draugiem conducted their own. From their data, management concluded that the secret to maximizing productivity throughout the day is working not longer, but smarter. The company’s surprised managers quickly learned that their most productive 10 percent of employees did not even work full eight-hour days. And they also didn’t work significantly longer than their peers, either.

Instead, the top performers took extraordinarily regular breaks. On average, they would work intensely for a 52-minute “sprint,” then recharge during a 17-minute break—and meticulously repeat this sprint/recharge pattern all week long.

But what’s especially surprising about the top 10 percent is what they did during their breaks. They completely abandoned their computers and devices, got up, and left their work area. The study results suggest that merely getting up and leaving might be more important than the precise break time duration. Some of the no-tech things they would do away from their desks included:

  • Chatting with coworkers about things besides work
  • Taking walks
  • Cooking and sharing snacks like popcorn
  • Reading books

What the Draugiem data showed closely aligns with advice from productivity experts, whose guidance includes common refrains. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out, that’s because the truth about productivity is that more hours seldom means better work, and the most productive employees don’t work the longest hours. Instead, what all the experts have come to understand is that top performers take “the smartest approach to managing their energy to solve tasks in efficient and creative ways.”

Breaks as Psychological Energy Management

Dr. John Trougakos suggests that mental concentration works like a muscle. A widely-quoted expert on organizational behavior and human resources at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, he told the New York Times that concentration becomes fatigued following sustained use, and it needs a period of rest so it can recover. He also told Fast Company that’s because the central nervous system has a finite energy supply:

All efforts to control behavior, to perform and to focus draw on that pool of psychological energy. Once that energy source is depleted, we become less effective at everything that we do.

Despite feeling tired and working less effectively and efficiently, a substantial proportion of the workforce never takes a break other than lunch. For example, the big-box office supply store Staples conducted a 2014 study of office workers and managers. That report disclosed that even though two-thirds of all employees spend more than eight hours on the job, more than a quarter of those workers take no breaks besides lunch.

At the same time—now get this—86 percent of the surveyed employees claimed to believe that taking frequent, non-lunch breaks makes them more productive. What?

Why wouldn’t these employees’ beliefs square with their behavior? Are their supervisors demanding these practices? About 90 percent of the bosses in the Staples study claimed that they encouraged breaks, and in a press release accompanying the data, Dr. Trougakos is quoted as saying that job-related stress actually costs companies hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

It’s also significant to recognize that better employers have non-lunch break requirements written into their corporate human resources policies. For example, Stanford University requires all employees to take at least a 20-minute non-lunch break every four hours, and the school has enforced that policy since the late 1980s.

So why don’t more employees take breaks? Is it that the media-driven social conditioning in America is too formidable to overcome? Actually, professor Trougakos also explained to the Times that a large proportion of people don’t take breaks because they feel guilty when they do. In fact, in the Staples study, a whopping 20 percent claimed guilt kept them psychologically chained to their desks.

He says that typically, guilt develops in a large portion of the workforce because breaks amount to “this little oasis of personal time that we get while we’re selling ourselves to someone else.” Nevertheless, here’s a priceless management tip for our audience’s future chief executives: Dr. Trougakos argues that it’s both costly and shortsighted for managers to discourage employees from taking regular breaks, and for people to skip the breaks they’ve earned. “Disconnecting from work can do wonders for people’s energy and mindset,” he insists.

How Goal Reactivation Revitalizes Focus

Another widely-quoted productivity expert’s research arrived at similar conclusions, but he reached them through investigating attention and focus.

A professor with the U.S. News seventh-ranked psychology program in the United States at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Alejandro Lleras demonstrates how prolonged attention to a single task hinders performance. One of the world’s foremost experts on attention, overfocusing, and distractibility, he showed through a big-budget 84-subject study published in the journal Cognition that even brief diversions can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus for extended periods on a task:

We asked observers to perform a visual vigilance task while maintaining digits in memory. When observers retrieved the digits at the end of the vigilance task, their vigilance performance steeply declined over time. However, when observers were asked to sporadically recollect the digits during the vigilance task, the vigilance decrement was averted. Our results present a direct challenge to the pervasive view that vigilance decrements are due to a depletion of attentional resources, and provide a tractable mechanism to prevent this insidious phenomenon in everyday life.

Several interesting facets to this analysis exist. One relates to the study’s contradiction of a limiting belief traditionally espoused by some managers, especially those supervising older production and assembly-line manufacturing environments built before modern robotics. Dr. Lleras explained to Science Daily that prolonged attention to a single protracted task actually hinders performance:

From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, 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.

Another interesting aspect relates to the author’s use of an abstract psychological concept known as goal reactivation to frame the study’s conclusions, explaining that “deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused.” But for those of us without psychology degrees, what in the world does that statement mean?

Dr. Ron Friedman, a psychologist and management consultant, has clarified this concept with a mindfulness interpretation that practical, business-oriented audiences can better appreciate. In his Harvard Business Review article entitled “Schedule a 15-Minute Break Before You Burn Out,” he explains:

A 2011 study published in Cognition highlights another upside to sporadic breaks that we rarely consider: goal reactivation. When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives, and, as the authors of the study report, reliably contributes to better performance.

Profound Intermissions?

Taking eventeen minutes of to “think globally” about the results all of us are trying to achieve is far from the only purpose served by intermissions. Those results can be infinitely more profound.

Dr. Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Detroit, points out that our conscious thinking functions in not one, but in two very different neurological modes. Focused mode is the mode that activates our prefrontal cortex when we need to concentrate. But there’s also a second kind of neurological process most of us have never heard of that’s known as a diffuse mode.

In short, diffuse mode thinking helps us recognize patterns and relationships among ideas, which is why many of the best writers, artists, and composers depend on this mode for their creativity.

Moreover, some studies have demonstrated that daydreaming helps solve our most difficult problems—solutions which most of us experience suddenly while in the shower, or while we’re behind the wheel. Breakthroughs that seemingly appear out of nowhere are often the product of diffuse neurology, which “can allow the brain to hook up and return valuable insights,” according to Dr. Oakley. She told Mother Jones:

When you’re focusing, you’re actually blocking your access to the diffuse mode. And the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem.

The Weekend Drive that Redefined Genetics

In 1983, biochemist Kary Mullis was back on the road again. He was driving from his lab at the newly-public Bay Area biotech startup Cetus Corporation to another weekend getaway at the off-grid cabin he was building near Mendocino.

On Highway 128 east of Cloverdale in rural Sonoma County and with his girlfriend Jennifer asleep in the passenger seat, suddenly an idea dawned on Dr. Mullis. Like a lightning bolt from the clouds above, instantly he recognized a straightforward method existed that could synthesize billions of copies of any DNA sequence.

Dr. Mullis instantly realized that he was on his way to Stockholm.

This simple technique would make as many copies as I wanted of any DNA sequence I chose, and everybody on Earth who cared about DNA would want to use it. It would spread into every biology lab in the world.

I would be famous. I would get the Nobel Prize.

In other words, his diffuse mode daydreaming behind the wheel had just invented the polymerase chain reaction, known as PCR. That’s the amplification technology commercialized within sensor equipment capable of detecting traces of DNA. His PCR chemistry redefined the field of genetics as the principal process responsible for decoding the genomes of humans.

Incidentally, most of us know Dr. Mullis’ invention as the mechanism underlying hundreds of millions of Covid tests. However, he repeatedly emphasized that using PCR to diagnose a disease or isolate the cause of an illness comprised a colossal misapplication of his technology.

In fact, Covid testing is only one example of the kinds of PCR misinterpretations that this relentless critic of Dr. Anthony Fauci emphatically discouraged. And his disparagement of Fauci continued right up until Dr. Mullis died unexpectedly and mysteriously of pneumonia in the middle of a hot Orange County summer—and only weeks before the first few Coronavirus cases surfaced in September 2019.

Only 14 months later in December 2020, an international consortium of 22 renowned scientists—including Pfizer United Kingdom’s famous former chief scientist Dr. Michael Yeadon—showed that Covid PCR testing produces 97 percent false-positive results. That is, of all the tens of millions of patients who ostensibly “tested positive,” only 3 percent actually suffered from Covid. Indeed, we now know the Covid crisis to be a pandemic of dangerously inaccurate testing.

As a result, the Food and Drug Administration has at last canceled the infamous emergency use authorization for the fraudulent test, which finally bans it in the United States effective January 1, 2022.

Nevertheless, PCR has experienced much more success through thousands of other applications that revolutionized genetics—all created by Dr. Mullis’ blast of diffuse mode thought late at night on that dark California country road.

And this kind of Nobel Prize-winning inspiration stems from the exact same kind of diverse mode of thinking that intermissions during work promote.

Let that fact sink in for a moment. The next time you believe that you’re “too busy” to pause and take a break from studying or work, stop anyway for a moment. Mindfully think about the inspiration that time away might bring you. Then reflect upon the opportunity cost of forgoing potentially invaluable, life-changing ideas your diffuse mode break-time thinking might suddenly and unexpectedly deliver.

On balance, one really can’t afford to do without that break.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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