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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jul 24, 2020


We routinely prioritise activities that have a deadline over far more important but not urgent activities. That includes our tendency to sacrifice breaks when we’re busy. But a break might be exactly what we need to boost our performance.



Hello and welcome to episode 87 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at the importance of taking breaks to achieve even higher levels of performance.

Researchers call it the mere urgency effect. It’s the finding that people routinely prioritise tasks with a deadline independent of their importance, over far more important tasks that don’t have a deadline. So even if another activity has much greater potential for outcomes, we will instead focus on a task with a deadline even if it isn’t really that important. The researchers found that this effect is even more pronounced in those who consider themselves to be ‘busy’. 

Being busy and being effective rarely go together. We have work cultures that celebrate busy-ness above all else. I remember being cc’d on a farewell email which repeatedly spoke about the long hours this person worked, and how they had earned a rest in retirement. There was no mention of the outcomes they achieved, the difference they made to the business, or the legacy they left in others - just the long hours and the well-earned rest. Is that what you want to hear at your retirement?

The science shows that we need both stress and recovery to be truly effective. Long hours without breaks are not good for productivity and performance. Taking this to the next level, a few organisations have trialled four day weeks. In these cases employees were paid the same as they would have received for a five day week but only needed to work four days. The shorter of the two studies, with Microsoft Japan over a 5 week time frame, saw significant productivity increases of 40%. Another organisation, Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand, found job performance was maintained, but other factors such as engagement, work/life balance and stress all improved markedly. People could deliver just as much if not more in 20% less time. Clearly when it comes to performance not every hour is created equal.

This contrasts with recent research from the UK which showed 82% of people don’t always take breaks. This is despite breaks being legally required for shifts of over 6 hours. The research showed that some people always take breaks, some people rarely take breaks, but most people fluctuate. Even though people were aware of the health and well-being benefits, completing tasks was still prioritised over taking breaks. A break is often seen as optional, and one of the things that is first to go when we get busy. The research also demonstrated that pressure from managers made a difference both ways. The manager sets the tone as to whether breaks are normal or not. We need to be careful about what we role model to our people. If we say ‘take a break’ but routinely eat lunch at our desk, guess which behaviour your people are going to follow?

Here’s the problem - If we see breaks as just an opportunity to boost an individual’s well-being at the expense of productivity, the work will always win. But the science is clear - breaks increase our productivity. Way back in episode 29 we talked about chronotypes - that our energy and attention levels fluctuate across the day, with most people favouring the morning, while some favour the afternoon and evening. But we’re not victims of our chronotype. We can recharge our energy and attention levels through frequent breaks. 

Some years ago I undertook some consulting work with a power plant. The production team was focused on, not surprisingly, production. In their minds the best scenario was to run the plant continuously and never give the plant a break. Then there was the maintenance team. In their mind the best scenario was to never run the plant so everything could be maintained at peak condition. Now those are extreme perspectives and the leaders in those areas wouldn’t express it that clearly, but their actions bore it out. The pressure to run the plant at 100% collided with the risk that the entire plant could be taken out by equipment failure. But the owners and senior leaders tended to favour production over maintenance. The business made money through production, but only ever seemed to lose money through maintenance. Interestingly, even several significant unplanned outages didn’t change their perspective. Clearly well-planned maintenance together with realistic production is the best scenario. 

As human beings we face the same dilemma. Time doing work is favoured over long-term productivity and performance. “Just get it done” is the norm, not “make sure you refresh and re-energise”. 

Is there another way? How might we avoid the mere urgency effect? Here’s how you might make a change:

  1. Implement a trial and experiment on yourself. What works for others may not work for you, so prepare to try a few different approaches.

  2. Measure your productivity - track it with numbers. This will give you a baseline measure that you can use for comparison.

  3. Remove the choice to take breaks - schedule them in and take them. Make breaks as important as a meeting with your boss. I suggest putting them in your calendar so others can’t book meetings over the top.

  4. Use breaks to tackle those important but non-urgent activities like refuelling, exercise, connecting with people, or planning for the future. Don’t just fritter the breaks away on time wasters like social media.

  5. Measure your energy, attention and productivity across the day. Use an hourly reminder and rate each factor out of 100%.

  6. Keep experimenting. Play around with how long you work before a break, with the length of breaks, and with what you do on those breaks. Implement a new trial.

  7. As a leader, encourage your people to do the same.

I trust this helps in taking you out of the world of mere urgency, and allows you to deliver even greater results while also looking after yourself and others.

As always, the references used in this episode are in the show notes at the website. And while you’re there, follow the “on demand” link to find recorded webinars and our Boost Your Assertiveness online course, all available with a free 7 day trial. 



Mike Oliver, Karen Rodham, Jennifer Taylor & Claire McIver (2020) Understanding the psychological and social influences on office workers taking breaks; a thematic analysis, Psychology & Health, DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2020.1764954


Meng Zhu, Yang Yang, Christopher K Hsee (October 2018) The Mere Urgency Effect, Journal of Consumer Research.