Sunday 14th July 2019 gave us three dramatic lessons in the tiny, ridiculous margins between success and failure. A fifth-set tie break at Wimbledon, a deflected boundary at Lord's, and a smartly timed pit stop at Silverstone. In the celebration of Lewis Hamilton's record sixth British Grand Prix win, no-one really noticed that his car was only 13th fastest through the Silverstone speed trap. No one really noticed, because it didn't really matter. Even in a race so fuelled by speed and engine power, it's actually less about pace and more about strategy. And a crucial part of this strategy is the pit-stop; how many to make, when to make them, and the efficiency of the process. These drivers can’t win the race without making a smart pit-stop.
Yet in the ‘rat race’ of work very few of us recognise the need to make a stop. We plough straight through our working hours; staring at a screen, working through lunch, sending emails while also sitting in a meeting, typing a message to your mate while also talking on the phone to a client. We think that by pushing on without a break means we are getting more done, we are winning the race. We are going at top speed.
But we’re not winning. By any measure; this strategy diminishes the quality of our work, it reduces our productivity and it damages our wellbeing. The only race we are winning with this strategy is the race towards burnout.
In just the same way that F1 drivers make pit-stops, the winners of the work race take breaks. The science, research and studies are piling up to show us categorically that taking a break makes you smarter, faster, stronger, better. Yet even with all the evidence in clear sight, we all struggle to heed this advice. In the midst of a pressured day, we all still believe that the best strategy is to simply push on. We continue to fundamentally reject the idea of taking a break.
Slackers don’t win
At 4and20million, we believe a big part of this rejection is in the language. Just by typing the word ‘break’ we’ve probably lost you. It’s a word we are all resistant to. We believe that’s because most of us hold the inherent belief that taking a break makes you a slacker.
This is a belief that we are programmed to believe from an early age. We are told that time spent “not doing” is time wasted. We are told that those who succeed are those who give their all! You can achieve anything if you put the hours in! Follow Elon Musk and work 100 hours a week in order to change the world! (And also lose grip on reality at the same time but that’s a small price to pay right?)
Taking a break feels wrong to us. It feels counter-intuitive and it’s also counter-cultural in most workplaces. Even with the growing scientific evidence that we can increase our productivity by taking breaks, we all still decide that the best plan is to just drive on even when we know we are not at our best.
So we want to take inspiration from the F1 world and banish the word ‘break’ and instead let’s use ‘pit-stop’. A pit-stop isn’t for slackers, a pit-stop is for the smart, strategic racer who plans and thinks fully about how to win the race. A pit-stop is a necessary refuel if you want to last the distance and produce high performance from start to finish.
We don’t really know why it helps to shift the need to take a break away from basic human needs and instead to think of ourselves like an F1 machine, but it does. We don’t know why we need to justify taking a break by using business buzzwords like ‘strategic’, but we do. So let’s. Let’s ‘trick’ ourselves into the value and tactical cleverness of a strategic pit-stop and use this to build new, healthier, more productive habits.
Time to start listening to the diagnostics
In the same way that F1 teams use data and diagnostics to understand the needs of the car, we humans need to start doing the same. Our bodies give us many signals which, if we listen to and act on, will enable us to reach and sustain our peak performance. By ignoring the signals, our performance simply diminishes.
Humans are not designed to operate at maximum capacity for hours on end. We aren’t robots. We are biologically wired to pulse.
Many of us know that we sleep in different cycles - from light to deep sleep every 90 minutes. What many of us don’t know is that this rhythm follows us throughout the day. It’s called our Ultradian rhythm. Our energy levels pulse, creating peaks and troughs across the day. Yet we choose to lead increasingly linear lives, spending energy too continuously and renewing it too infrequently.
Humans can only reach top performance when we live in tune with our natural rhythms. When we pulse. When we embrace bursts of energy - work hard, then rest. Sprint, then jog. Concentrate fully, then daydream. It’s about bringing different speeds into our day - not just running at top speed all day, thinking that’s producing our most efficient output.
A new race strategy
Advances in neuroscience are giving us unprecedented insight into how the adult brain operates. The human brain is the most complex system in the universe and we all need to start considering the conditions in which this incredible operating system can perform to its maximum capacity.
The science is out there and it’s telling us that humans can maintain the highest level of concentration for 90 minutes - any longer than this and we start to struggle. Choosing to power through any longer than 90 minutes without a pit-stop and you are simply working at a lesser ability than you are capable. Choosing instead to take time to purposefully refuel and renew, you’ll allow your cognitive capacity to recharge and set you back into the race at full speed.
The utopian pit-stop is 15-20 minutes taking a walk in nature. Seeking fresh air, the sky and some greenery is the top strategy for the ultimate human pit-stop. It feels like the natural next sentence is to back-track on this and say that we understand this just isn’t possible some days. But that sentiment slips us back into the current mindset of work,work,work,work,work,work,work,work,wee,work,work,work,work,work,work,work,drop. On crazy busy days it feels impossible to make a 15 minute pit-stop, but the empirical evidence shows that this is always the best choice.
We need to build a new approach to the working day. A work strategy that is more intentional and better planned. One that is built around our biological needs and so enables sustained, peak performance. One that has a rhythm of pulsing, doing exceptional work that requires full cognitive energy and then renewing our reserves in order to go again just as strong.
This should be our goal. But if we have to take small steps first to build up the acceptance of making pit-stops during the work day by starting with 5 minute stops, then fine. But let’s start. Because the way we are currently racing is producing no winners. We are all capable of making so much more brilliance happen during our working hours, and still leave at the end of the day with energy in the tank to enjoy the rest of our life.