The Key to Maximizing Productivity

Prior to my life as a health and wellness coach, I worked in a variety of professional positions in the healthcare arena: project manager, performance improvement specialist, physician practice manager. In each of these roles, I aspired to be a “model employee” with my nose to the grindstone, accomplishing as much as I could within the work day. Prior to having a child, it was easy to work 50- to 60-hour weeks, logging 8+ hour days often by working through lunch to catch up on emails and other tasks at my computer. I found a little more balance after my daughter was born, as I had to leave the office on time to pick her up from daycare…but that fact seemed to intensify the need to forgo breaks and power through lunch in order to accomplish as much I had been doing in a shorter amount of time.

I, like many others, wore this work ethic like a badge of honor. We looked down our noses at (yet perhaps secretly envied) those coworkers who were religious about taking their mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks as well as the full 30 or 60 minutes allotted for lunch. And those who actually left the office to go out for lunch!? We couldn’t fathom how they were accomplishing as much as we were, scarfing down our sandwiches so we could respond to a few more emails before rushing off to our next meeting.

Doing it all wrong

Turns out, we “model employees” were doing it all wrong, based on the findings from a number of productivity studies published in the last decade or so. Just yesterday, a tweet came across my feed quoting a 2014 article from The Atlantic, which highlighted results from a study suggesting the formula for “perfect productivity”: 52 minutes of focused work followed by a 17-minute break. Where did these specific numbers come from? A social networking company, the Draugiem Group, used the time-tracking productivity app DeskTime, to see what habits set their most productive employees apart. They found that the 10% of employees with the highest productivity didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. The secret to their success was to take regular breaks and – you guessed it – they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.

Perhaps more important than the fact that these employees took breaks throughout the day is what they did – or didn’t do – on their breaks. The time was spent completely away from the computer or other electronics, so they weren’t checking personal email, or catching up on social media. Some of the most common activities these employees engaged in were taking a walk, chatting with colleagues (about non-work-related topics), or reading a book. This study demonstrates what researchers have been saying for years – that our brains simply aren’t built to focus for long stretches at a time. Rather, the key to high productivity is not working longer, but working smarter by taking frequent breaks.

What surprised, and to some extent saddened, me is that we have known this information for quite some time, but culture in the workplace seems slow to change. The Atlantic article cited research from a similar study conducted by Cornell University’s Ergonomics Research Laboratory in 1999 – that’s almost 20 years ago! The Cornell study used a computer program to remind employees to take short breaks. The researchers found that workers who received the reminders to assume good posture, take short breaks and occasionally stretch did more accurate work and as a result were more productive. Furthermore, the increase in productivity allowed the company to recoup its investment in the software in about three months. I don’t think any employer could argue with that return on investment.

Old habits die hard

So, given that science has shown repeatedly that our ability to perform tasks has diminishing returns over time, why do so many of us find it difficult to stop and take breaks? True confession: I struggled with it even as I was writing this blog post. And I have a Fitbit that reminds me to get up and move every hour, so I really have no excuse! Some days I do better than others, especially when I am feeling the mental fatigue of working on the computer. I think many of us though, myself included, still carry that false assumption that “powering through” will allow us to accomplish more. Perhaps we are not sure how to build the breaks into our schedule – or more importantly, how to hold ourselves accountable to actually take them.

Below are some tips that may help you develop the habit of taking periodic breaks during the day:

  • Schedule breaks into your daily calendar. They don’t necessarily have to be every 52 minutes like the study suggests but aim to take a break at least once every 60-90 minutes.


  • Set a timer or alert to remind you when to take your break. The key here is to not ignore the alert – one idea is to have a sticky note or similar visual to remind you WHY it’s so important to take a break.


  • If you work outside the home, find a “break buddy” – invite a coworker to take a walk or chat about current events. Hold each other accountable to a certain number of breaks per day.


  • If you work by yourself at home and have a pet, consider using your animal companion as a break buddy. Play with your dog or cat for 10-15 minutes. If you don’t have a pet, you can use the time to read, listen to a few favorite songs, or engage in a favorite hobby (e.g., crossword or picture puzzles).


Learning to change your work habits will take time and patience, but in the end, it will benefit you and/or your employer. You’ll feel better and you’ll likely accomplish more by working less. Give it a try – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.


Gearing Up for Flu Season

As we head into the middle of September, it is not too early to start thinking about getting your annual flu shot. There are many myths and misconceptions about the flu, so here are some basic facts and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Q & A style:

What exactly is the flu?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. (Contrary to public opinion, it is not “just a bad cold.”)


What are the most common flu symptoms?

Flu symptoms often come on very suddenly. People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:

  • fever (although not everyone with the flu will have one)
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • headache
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • sometimes diarrhea and vomiting

The time from when a person is exposed and infected with flu to when symptoms begin is about 2 days but can range from about 1 to 4 days.


How might I get sick with the flu?

The flu virus is typically spread through tiny droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might get infected by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.


What can I do to prevent getting sick with the flu?

The best form of prevention is to get a flu vaccine (shot) each year. The flu vaccine has been shown to reduce flu-related illnesses and the risk of serious flu complications that can result in hospitalization or even death. The flu virus strains change every year, which is why individuals need to get vaccinated every flu season.

The other recommendations are to avoid people who are sick, cover coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands frequently to help slow the spread of germs that cause the flu and other illnesses.


Should everyone get a flu shot?

The general recommendation is that everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu shot every season. Vaccination is particularly important for people who are at high risk of serious complications from influenza, such as:

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum)
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Individuals with chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and chronic lung disease among others

There are some individuals who should not receive the flu shot, including:

  • Children younger than 6 months are too young to get a flu shot
  • People with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine such as gelatin, antibiotics, or other ingredients

Individuals with the following conditions should discuss the risks and benefits of flu vaccination with their provider:

  • If you have an allergy to eggs or any of the ingredients in the vaccine
  • If you ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness, also called GBS). Some people with a history of GBS should not get this vaccine

Bottom line: if you have questions about whether or not you should get the flu shot, talk to your doctor or other healthcare professional.


Can getting the flu shot give you the flu?

No, a flu shot cannot cause flu illness. Flu shots are currently made in two ways: with flu viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ and are therefore not infectious, or with no flu viruses at all. The most common side effects from the influenza shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. Low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches also may occur.

Some people may still get the flu even after getting a shot. This can happen for a few reasons:

  • It is possible they were exposed to the flu virus shortly before getting vaccinated or during the two-week period after vaccination that it takes the body to develop immune protection. Thus, the person could become ill with the flu before protection from the vaccine takes effect.


  • They may have been exposed to a flu virus strain that is different from the virus strains selected for the vaccine each year. Although vaccine manufacturers strive to produce vaccines that have the best “match” between the strains selected to make the vaccine and those spreading and causing illness, there are many different flu virus strains and an exact match is not always possible.


  • People can become ill from other respiratory viruses besides the flu, which may cause symptoms similar to the flu even when it is not the flu. The flu vaccine only protects against influenza, not other illnesses.


The good news is that even if you get the flu after being vaccinated, it typically leads to a milder case if you do get sick. In addition, getting vaccinated yourself also protects people around you, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.


When should I get the flu shot?

The key is to get a flu shot before flu begins spreading in your community. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body; thus, the CDC recommends that people get a flu shot by the end of October. However, it can still be beneficial to get vaccinated anytime throughout the flu season, even into January or later.


Where can I get a flu shot?

Flu shots are offered in many doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics, health departments, pharmacies and college health centers, as well as by many employers, and even in some schools. If you don’t have a regular doctor, you can get a flu vaccine somewhere else, like a health department, pharmacy, urgent care clinic, and often your school, college health center, or workplace.

To find a flu shot near you, visit the Flu Vaccine Finder (you may need to scroll down the page to see it).


What should I do if I do get the flu?

If you do get sick with the flu, antiviral drugs may be a treatment option. Check with your doctor promptly if you believe you have flu symptoms.  When used for treatment, antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia.

In addition, if you get sick with flu symptoms, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people as much as possible. The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the need to use a fever-reducing medicine). If you must leave home, for example to get medical care, wear a facemask if you have one, or cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Remember to wash your hands often to keep from spreading the flu to others.

For more information about the flu and how to protect yourself, please visit the CDC website.

The Calm before the Storm

Here in the heart of North Carolina, we are knee deep in preparation for the threat of Hurricane Florence. I saw a great quote on Facebook yesterday: “Waiting for a hurricane is like being stalked by a turtle.”  I had to chuckle, but this analogy is spot on. The good thing about hurricanes is we have advanced warning before they strike, so we can prepare for the worst. The bad thing about hurricanes is we have advanced warning, so we can also sit and worry about the unknown for days on end. In some ways, the waiting and worrying seems worse than whatever damage the storm may bring.

For those of you in Florence’s path, this storm is predicted to be fierce so please, please heed the advice of the experts and be prepared. Click here for the Department of Homeland Security’s hurricane preparedness toolkit. If you live in Wake County, you can sign up for emergency alerts here. As with any major storm, things can change up until the last minute so stay abreast of the latest storm warnings via the National Hurricane Center website. I pray for the safety of all of us in the storm’s path.

I chose this topic for both its literal and figurative meaning. As so many of us are distracted by the threat of Florence (as well as the other storms brewing in the Atlantic), I fear that it will overshadow the importance of today, the anniversary of 9/11. For many people, it is just another year that has past since that terrible tragedy 17 years ago. But for the families and friends who lost loved ones at the Pentagon, the Twin Towers and that grassy field in Pennsylvania, it is an annual reminder of the permanent hole left in their hearts. There is often beautiful weather just before a major storm; the same was true on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. If you recall, it was a clear day on the east coast, with bright blue skies…until those skies were darkened by the smoke and ashes from fiery attacks on our homeland. We didn’t have any warning that day, so there was no way to prepare for the events that unfolded before our eyes.

As information about the numerous victims became available in the days after the attacks, I learned of the tragic loss of several alumni from my high school. So today, like every September 11th, I pause in remembrance of these individuals who were taken too soon:

Michael Curtin (Class of 1975)

Joanne Ahladiotis (Class of 1992)

Lisa Egan (Class of 1988)

Samantha Egan (Class of 1995)


Rest in peace, knowing we will never forget. You have taught us to cherish each day as if it were our last.

JKH 9-11 anniv letter to editor
Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11