Grownups Need Recess, Too

A New York Times story (the most emailed article for much of today and yesterday) reports on the positive impact school recess has on academic performance. Here's how it begins: "The best way to improve children's performance in the classroom may be to take them out of it."

The paradoxical lesson of this story is relevant not just for school children but for us grownups, too: taking time out to restore and rejuvenate ourselves results not in reduced performance caused by less time dedicated to work, but to increased performance caused by the stronger, more focused effort you bring to work after fruitful rest.

But in the midst of this soul-crushing, terror-inducing recession, how can anyone think seriously, and without guilt, about undertaking activity that isn't directly reducing costs or increasing revenues? The short answer is that you can't afford not to.

Our minds, our bodies, and our spirits can only go so far without some care and feeding. So perhaps the more difficult question is this: How do I do it in a way that works and is sustainable? Here are some tips for the rejuvenation-starved:

  1. Whatever you do for your recess, try it in small steps for starters. You are much more likely to make it happen if you undertake some activity that doesn't require a big restructuring of your life.
  2. Make a list of the benefits -- direct or indirect -- that your recess will have on other people in your life. Not only will you feel less guilty about doing something that at first might have seemed selfish, but you'll actually be more likely to do it when you realize how it will benefit others.
  3. Enroll someone you trust to serve as your coach. It could be anyone, so long as they can provide both support and accountability pressure.
  4. After a week or two, get feedback from the people who matter to you to see if indeed you're better able to serve their needs and interests as a result of taking your recess.
  5. Finally, adjust as you learn what's working and what's not, again, from the point of view of the people around you. There are tons of ways it might not work! But these will be many fewer if the people around you see your recess as useful for them, too.
What might this grown-up recess look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

Shut off your BlackBerry or cell phone for 30 minutes each day, whenever works best. Yes, this alone can count as recess. Just shutting off the stream can leave you feeling more focused when you turn it back on.

Take a yoga class.
One hour a week is a pretty small step. What's the benefit to others? Well, if yoga relaxes you, maybe you'll be a more pleasant boss, parent, partner, or friend to be around. And improving your health and posture might mean less time absent from work. Going with a friend or coworker means you'll be less likely to skip class.

Treat yourself to a weekly food splurge at a farmer's market or local co-op. You have to buy food anyway, so there's little extra time involved, and if you're someone who enjoys cooking and eating, preparing a meal can be a relaxing and creative activity. And it's just more fun when you get to use fresher or more unusual foods. Benefits? You get to spend more time with your loved ones, and you're less stressed and distracted at work because you feel more connected to your family.

Read a book for fun.
Try to set aside 20 minutes a day, at first. How will a little light reading on your part make things better for others? Maybe it will make you a more interesting conversationalist for your friends, or a role model for your kids. Maybe something you read for fun will give you a great idea for something at work - that random cross-pollination is a big part of creativity. Pair up with a friend and agree to swap books. Or, check the book out from the library: if you have a deadline you need to finish by, you'll be more likely to make the time to read it.
 
Do a crossword during your lunch break. Studies have shown that regularly doing crossword puzzles helps strengthen the mind and may delay the onset of dementia or forgetfulness. Taking at least a 15 minute break during lunch will make you fresher for the afternoon.

If you're stuck, post a comment and we'll see what we can do to help. And if you've already found a good way to take a recess that improves your performance at work, let us know. In the meantime, let's all keep learning from our children!

This content was adapted for inclusion in the HBR Guide to Managing Stress.
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