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A Workaholic's Guide to Taking A Break

A tired woman drinks her coffee at her desk

You want to do a good job... but do you go above and beyond to achieve this?

Workaholics tend to ignore the most crucial component of sustained productivity: rest. The busyness of life, and the wish to achieve high-standards creates a ceaseless urge to make the most of every moment.

As a clinical psychologist I've seen first-hand the detrimental effects of burnout and the underappreciated power of taking a break. If you get an overwhelming urge to be productive in every moment of the day, yet recognise that this is affecting your health, ability to be effective or your relationships, then you are in the right place.

Lets take a look at the reasons we need to take breaks, the common blocks and the practical strategies to incorporate meaningful rest into a schedule that's already bursting.

Why is Rest Necessary?

For Productivity

Rest is not just a pause from work; it's an active part of the productivity process. Studies have shown that regular breaks can improve concentration, prevent decision fatigue, and maintain consistent performance levels. In essence, a proper rest makes you more effective during your work hours.

For Physical Restoration

Continuous work without breaks leads to physical strain and can exacerbate health issues. Rest is crucial for the body's repair process, helping to prevent burnout symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, and various stress-related illnesses. Often burnt-out individuals catch every passing cold and take longer to recover from these ailments. Essentially, if you don't rest then your body will force a rest for you.

For Creative Thinking

Have you noticed how creativity often strikes in moments when you're not trying? The brain needs downtime to process information, make connections, and come up with innovative ideas. When we are stressed the threat-focused section of brain (the amygdala) is more active, which leads to tunnel vision and rigidity in our thinking. Creative thought is only possible when our thoughts are looser; more able to meander, which is why a rested mind is more likely to generate creative solutions and see things from a new perspective.

Why Are You Blocked From Taking Breaks?

Workaholics often face lots of external pressures (high workload and not enough support) but also from psychological blocks that prevent them from taking necessary breaks. These internal blocks can include strong emotions and mindsets such as:

  1. Guilt: Many feel guilty when they are not working, viewing rest as a form of laziness rather than a necessity.

  2. Anxiety: Many workaholics become anxious that they will let someone down or fail in their responsibility.

  3. Fear of Falling Behind: There's a pervasive fear that taking a break will lead to missed opportunities or a backlog of work.

  4. Perfectionism: The belief that one must constantly work to achieve and maintain high standards can be paralysing.

These blocks not only hinder rest but also contribute to chronic stress, lower self-esteem and decreased productivity. All of this causes our nervous system to become activated into threat-mode and, in the absence of rest, we can get stuck here, leading to a vicious cycle.

Types of Rest

When I talk to my clients about rest I notice that they tend to interpret this as meaning physical rest only. But there are different types of rest. Understanding these will help you get the right rest for your current need.

There are a few models of rest type, but the one I like most is by psychologist Suzy Reading in Rest to Reset. She gives a very practical model called The 8-Pillars of Rest, which invites you to consider the ways in which you have been spending your emotional and physical energy to work out what you might need in any given moment.

Movement                       ↔️                       Stillness

Have you moved much today? Do you need more movement if you’ve been sitting for long periods, or do you need stillness now.

Stimulation                       ↔️                       A break from stimulation

Have your senses been used a lot today, which ones? If yes how can you take a break from this, if no, what kind of stimulation will offer you balance?

High energy levels           ↔️                       A soothing dissipation of energy

Do you need something uplifting and energising, a boost because you feel de-energised?  Or are you carrying pent up energy, feeling fidgety and needing to allow this to dissipate.

Solitude                            ↔️                       Being in the company of others

Have you spent a while in solitude and could now benefit from the company of others, or have you spent the day socialising and need to be alone or with the comforting presence of a friend, partner or pet. 

Mindful Focus                  ↔️                       A free, wandering mind

How has your brain been engaged? If you’ve been working mentally hard, or absorbing content during a lecture or client calls then perhaps you need to give your mind space to decompress through something gentle or ‘easy’ like listening to music or colouring in.

Emotional expression     ↔️                  A break from your emotions

Sometimes taking a break from emotional expression can be helpful, at other times you may have had to bottle them up in order to get on with other activities. Do you need to tune in and journal on them now or take a break from them?

Comfort and ease           ↔️                       A stretchy challenge

Has the day been humdrum, filled with monotony? Perhaps you need something fresh to get your teeth into.  Or perhaps you crave the familiarity of routine, your favourite spot on the sofa and a date with your book, phone or telly.

Giving                                ↔️                       Receiving

Who has been on the receiving end of your attention? If you’ve been providing for others in your duties at work or home then how can you receive care yourself now?  Can you ask someone else to put the kids to bed or take up an offer of help that you’re initial urge is to decline? Or, it you’ve spent all day disconnected from giving and would like to do this, how can you offer back, perhaps to family or your local community.

Incorporating Rest into a Workaholic's Lifestyle

When life and work are demanding our nervous system responds by shifting into the sympathetic nervous system mode where we are mobilised and energised for action (the fight or flight behaviours). The problem with this (in modern day stress) is that we don't feel like pausing when in this state because the energy build up creates a persistent sense of urgency. If your logical brain knows there's no emergency yet your body feels urgent then you should use this as a cue that you really need a break.

  1. Burn through some of the excess energy: Do a short burst of physical movement to discharge this excess to reset your nervous system before trying to rest. For example you can run up and down the stairs, pace the room a few times or do some star jumps. Do something within your physical comfort range.

  2. Transitions in the day: It's hard to imagine resting when you've got lots to do so elongating the moments of transition in your day is a clever way of snatching a moment of this. For example, when I'm working from home I try to stop 5 minutes earlier for the school run so I can park the car one block away from the school. This short 5 min walk helps me to refocus out of 'work-mode'.

  3. Schedule breaks with an accountability buddy: Integrate short, regular breaks into your workday and actually put these into your schedule/diary. But the important part of this is to get an accountability buddy to do the same so you can hold yourselves to account. Even if you're not in the same location you can agree a time together and set an alarm, when it goes off step away from what you're doing and check in with your buddy to make sure they've done the same. Have something to refocus on ready to go. E.g. a podcast episode that you can listen to for 10 mins. A short walk you can take around the block. Or a friend who is expecting you to call.

  4. Setting boundaries: Define clear work hours and stick to them by having a wind down routine as you near the end of the day and then removing reminders of work. For example: hide work apps from your home screen. Throw a blanket over your desk or the kid's toys if you work from home or parent. Turn notifications off from 6pm. Ban admin-chat with your partner for at least a chunk of the evening. Keep a note-book of to-dos and make sure you put any intrusive thoughts of "I just need to" on to the list rather than actioning them. You're brain will continue to remind you od all the things you haven't yet done as you start to wind down, the trick isn't to stop those thoughts but to acknowledge them, write a reminder then refocus on your down time.

  5. Seek professional support: If you struggle to balance work and rest, consider speaking with a therapist. Often there are internal pressures like perfectionism, people-pleasing and using busyness to avoid emotions that can be addressed in therapy. Get in touch with our team if you want to explore this in a free initial conversation.

What next?

👉 Read this 4 minute blog 'How to Mentally Switch Off': a beginners guide to using mindfulness.

👉 Read this 4 minute blog 'What Does Burnout Feel Like?'

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