Want to Increase Your Productivity at Work? Just Walk Away

Posted Jun 25, 2013 by Hult Labs

We at Hult Labs, given our own experiences, are willing to guess that your workday begins, and ends, with two things you may not give much thought to—a desk and a chair. We are also willing to guess that you sometimes get trapped, in that desk and chair, as you focus on being a productivity machine. That’s probably not an earth-shattering revelation, but we’re making a point about how common it is for us to spend—unquestioningly—countless hours almost frozen in time, sitting at a desk and staring at a screen. Why state the obvious? We’ve come across compelling research about the fact that sitting at a desk for long stretches of time can actually be quite bad for us, even aversely affecting our ability to be truly productive. Thankfully, there’s some newly emerging thinking on the best ways to partition our workday so that we can maximize our productivity during our time at the office.

Most of us have been conditioned to believe that sitting at a desk, sometimes for hours on end, translates to a greater level of productivity. “Did I work hard today? I was at my desk for 10 hours!” Sure, it sounds impressive (in a way), but does that mean that more work—or better work—was done?

Thorin Klosowksi solves this burning question in his article “The Office Worker’s Schedule for Healthy Living,” in which he asserts that we can be both productive and healthy if we are willing to follow a schedule that reminds us throughout the day to step away from our desks for a breather. He writes: “Creating a schedule to remind yourself to stand up and exercise a little might seem insane, but it's pretty clear we all need some type of motivation because we're not doing it on our own.” Thing is, we’re so trained to think that walking away from our desks means that valuable work time is also taking a walk on the non-productivity side. Not true! We’ll get to why that is, but first: how can we break this conditioning, this strongly ingrained habit to be tethered to our desks?

First, we have to be our own advocates, our own “walk away” coaches. As it turns out, “we sit for about 15 hours a day,” a stunning factoid that Klosowski mentions in his article. His research uncovered the following: “When you're sitting, the big muscles, especially in the lower part of body, are completely unloaded. They're not doing their job," That inactivity prompts changes in the body's metabolism…and produces a number of biological signals, what scientists call biomarkers, which are linked to cancer.” Imagine day after day of sitting, almost immobile, tackling one to-do list item after another—even eating at your desk in an attempt to counter an ever-growing list of tasks or emails. It’s probably not too hard to envision this because it’s probably your reality. And that’s a problem. Long stretches of sitting may not directly translate to certain cancers for you, but the odds are getting stacked—and not in your favor.

And it’s not just a lower body/sitting issue. Klosowski takes a look at other modern-day office hazards, like eye and wrist strain, which can be annoying at best, or require surgery at worst. It makes a desk job sound almost…dangerous! But it’s not just our bodies that suffer; our minds can take a beating as well. In her article, “To Stay on Schedule, Take a Break,” Phyllis Korkki quotes Rotman School of Management professor, John P. Trougakos: “Mental concentration is similar to a muscle…It becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover.” Trougakso recommends in the article that we take a break before reaching the end of our mental rope. Korkki writes: “Symptoms of needing time to recharge include drifting and daydreaming.”  But we wonder: Is there an exception to taking a break every hour? Wouldn’t it be better to keep working if you’re in “the zone” and ideas are flowing from your mind like water from a faucet?

The answer to that may surprise you. Enter Klosowski’s schedule (devised in collaboration with Brian Parr from the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken), which is designed to make you take leave of your computer every half hour. That’s right—you’ll have to step away from that poetically comprehensive spreadsheet that’s in the making, that perfectly worded email to your clients that’s not quite done yet, or the phone that never stops demanding your attention. This may sound like defying gravity, but it really isn’t. And there’s good incentive to do it.

Klosowski quotes Parr as saying, “I think a good goal is 5-10 minutes of activity (away from the desk) per hour. That could be 5 minutes every half hour or 10 minute each hour…some workplaces are more supportive of taking short activity breaks than others. Many of these ideas can be done “secretly.” The benefit of taking breaks for the amount of time that Parr suggests is that you are giving some stasis to—if not preventing altogether—the negative impact that sitting at your computer can have on your body and mind. The research shows that short breaks, again, away from the desk, actually make us more productive than if we’d stayed at the desk all along. We may seemingly “lose” work time every time we get up to take a break, but we gain it back in spades through our increased productivity throughout the day.

We recommend that you read the article in its entirety to figure out how best to incorporate Klosowski and Parr’s recommended schedule for a productive workday, but we will leave you with this: a routine that involves 10 minutes of some form of activity—away from your desk (yes, we’re stressing a point)—every hour may include a walk around the block for a few minutes and then some stretching, or grabbing a coffee and checking in with a colleague. There are myriad ways to re-charge your body and mind in under 10 minutes. In fact, Klosowski states, ”By the end of the day, it is reasonable that someone could stretch and strengthen all of the major muscle groups. For many people, that is a lot of exercise!” And if you’ve abandoned your exercise routine because of your long work hours, you’ll be gaining some beneficial physical activity while increasing your productivity. Fit, productive and healthy? Who says you can’t have it all? Not Hult Labs.

Photo courtesy of Antony Hell.

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