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Why taking breaks helps boost your productivity

Your mind is not programmed to be productive for eight hours straight. But, there are ways for you to be the most productive in the least amount of time. 

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As a person who makes a living doing freelance and contract work from home, there are two questions I tend to get about my job. The first is whether I work in pajamas. (The answer is no.) The second is how I manage to get any work done at all.

"If I worked at home, I don't think I'd get any work done," people often tell me. "How do you manage to stay productive for eight hours a day on your own?"

The simple answer? I don't.

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And, according to research about productivity in the workplace, you probably aren't productive for eight straight hours either, whether you're working at a laptop at your kitchen table or sitting in an office or cubicle. In fact, some research suggests that many office workers are productive for as little as three hours per eight-hour work day.

Here are five tips on how to get the most work done in the least amount of time so that you can head home early — or at least right on time.

1. Recognize Your Window of Productivity

When I sit down at my desk, I typically jump right into working. Then, after a while, my mind starts to wander. In the past, this really frustrated me. I need to be working! In fact, periods of inattention are pretty normal — necessary, even.

Research by Draugiem Group, a social networking company, suggests that the average person can only maintain concentration and productivity for about 52 minutes at a time. However, while many people try to push through this window, the most productive workers actually do something quite different: They take a 17-minute break during which they do something completely unrelated to work. They leave their desks. They take a walk. They chat with co-workers. They read a book. They take a nap.

That might sound lazy, but research suggests that our brains — much like our bodies — need to rest following hard work. And, just like doing too much exercise without rest will eventually cause the body to break down, running your brain at full speed tends to lead to burnout. That's because our brains are designed to cycle between two types of activity: focused attention, and wandering or daydreaming. And, it is in this latter phase of attention that our brains not only rest, but collate and process the things we've just been working on. It's why inspiration tends to strike when we're doing the most mundane things. It's while at rest that our brains have a chance to make new connections.

So, the first step to becoming more productive is to get a sense of how long you can work before your mind starts to wander. Is it 30 minutes? 50 minutes? An hour? Once you figure that out, you can start breaking your work day into blocks of about that size, followed by short, restful breaks.

2. Be Realistic About Your Goals

No one's going to pat you on the back or give you a promotion for writing a single page of a huge report. Nevertheless, this is exactly the kind of goal that'll help you finish a project in the most efficient, effective way possible. Why? Because it's simple, it's achievable, and it's motivating.

In fact, according to Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile, small, daily progress is the most powerful workplace motivator there is. So, rather than setting goals that are days or weeks in the making, set smaller goals that you can achieve each day. By completing a small, tangible goal each day, you will build momentum that'll help keep you on track. Plus, you'll be chipping away at bigger objectives in the most productive way possible.

3. Break Work Into Blocks

Now that you have some key goals, break your work into tasks that'll fit into 52-minute (or thereabouts) blocks. Start each work day by thinking about what you can complete within your productive window(s). Can you empty your email inbox? Finish a section of that spreadsheet? Write a specific portion of that big report? Whatever it is, prioritize your tasks and designate a block of your day for each thing you want to work on. Even with frequent breaks, your brain's mental capacity will wane as the day goes on, so you may also want schedule the most difficult tasks first thing in the morning

4. Spend Less Time on the Job

Depending on where you work, working less may not possible, but research suggests that it's ideal. Workaholics might think they're accomplishing more, but the research doesn't bear that out. In fact, it suggests we should all go home at 5:00 pm and get a life.

We've known since way back that super-long work weeks deliver diminishing — and even negative — returns. In the early 1900s, Ford Motor Company determined that the optimum work hours for worker productivity amounted to no more than 40 hours per week. They even found that while adding an additional 20 hours per week boosted productivity initially, that increase only lasted for about a month, at which point the increase turned negative. More recent studies have found that the sweet spot for employment productivity is 30 hours per week. Other studies have found that after 50 hours, output remained the same. In other words, people tend to get the same amount of work done, whether they spend 50 hours or 70 hours on the job each week.

Depending on where you work, you may not be able to cut your work days short, but you may be able to avoid being sucked into a culture that promotes staying at the office well into the night. Going home on time isn't a sign of laziness. It's smart idea, and one that'll help you deliver more and better work when you are on the clock.

5. Work Hard, Play Hard

Being more productive isn't about working longer or even harder. In fact, it's all about giving yourself a break. So if you find yourself unable to resist a few cat videos during the day, or you spend a little too long chatting with a coworker at lunch, it doesn't mean you're wasting time. As it turns out, that space between periods of work is where the real productivity happens.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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