Lunch breaks and overall productivity

So yesterday, when I was trying to think of a topic for today’s blog post, I was taking a well deserved break to eat lunch. I had just finished a really productive morning where I was motivated to keep going on what I was doing. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to take a lunch break, because I always worry about getting back to work after.

But as normal, I did take a lunch break. After all, I was hungry. And it was noon. And all the research says that taking a break makes you more productive over the day. Research, that for me, I’m not sure I agree with. In my experience, I’m better off continuing with whatever I’m doing if I am productive. Because after a break, I find it takes a lot of time to get back going. I think this is why pomodoro’s work for well for me – a 5 minute break gives you a chance to stop what you’re doing for a moment, but it’s not long enough to get completely distracted and forget what you were doing beforehand.

So during my lunch break, I spent a lot of it debating how long the break should be. Which lead to searching for articles on productivity and lunch breaks. Most of what I came across are similar to Office lunch breaks boost productivity and When the Lunch Break Isn’t an Option. Both of these articles are from the 2007, but there doesn’t seem to be any big changes in thought over any of the years since.

So while I’m not sure I agree with them, at least the benefit of being a grad student means that I don’t have to be productive from 9-5 each day. I can work productively in the morning and evening if that works best for me. However, that’s not to say that you don’t need to figure out how to be productive even when you don’t want to.

In my search for information, I also came across a discussion on stackoverflow.com on Programmer’s productive work time. This was really interesting to read, even if it too, is a few years old. The discussion was started by a programmer who was informed that in their 9 hour workday (included an hour for lunch) they are expected to be productive for 6 hours. The programmer thought that seemed too little, and a lot of the replies seemed to agree, thinking that the 2 hours of “non productive” work time must include things like phone calls, email and meetings.

The comment I found most interesting (probably because it most closely resembles my view) was this one:

If you’re trying to work out a problem then it really helps to just take a breather for a while and organise your thoughts. Trying to work for too long on something you’re both building and maintaining can give you really bad tunnel vision – you end up becoming fixated on one problem area and letting everything else fall by the wayside.

The 6 hours doesn’t really surprise me, because I think we all like to think we’re productive more of the time when we’re at work (or suppose to be working) then we usually are. And most studies have found that employees “waste” a lot of time on social networking sites, email, news and so on. If you’re in a job that requires a lot more thinking (programming or policy development) versus doing (cashier or stocking shelves), I think it’s inevitable that you will end up spending more time being “unproductive.” But I don’t see this as a bad thing, because even when I’m not directly working on a given task, that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it and trying to figure out what needs to be done next. It’s often in my breaks away from coding that I get that breakthrough as my mind continues to chug away on the problem in the background.

So, how does your day usually look? Are there certain times of the day where your productivity falls apart? Or events that make it almost impossible to get started again? And when you are “working”, what percent of the time do you think you’re really working?

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