When we try to be more productive, we tend to think of ways to get more stuff done: we get up earlier, create schedules, and do out best to avoid distractions and context switching. But one of the most important things we can do to improve the standard of our work, as well as how much we get done, is to take breaks. Research shows that taking breaks helps to boost motivation and focus, improve creativity, and consolidate memory and learning – so hitting pause is essential if we want to stay focused and alert.
But not all breaks are created equal – and to really maximize work breaks, we need to know what’s effective and what isn’t. So what type of breaks should we be taking, and should we be scheduling them or playing it by ear? Here are a few ideas for taking better work breaks.
What makes an effective break?
An effective break acts as a cognitive breather, allowing our bodies to relax and our brains to reboot. It’s really important to remember that our attention is a limited resource, and we can only focus on a task for a couple of hours (at most) before our brains start to falter.
A study of 1,700 office workers showed that half of all participants reached a point each day where their brains could no longer process information – and if we don’t take breaks, we run the risk of burning out, or at the very least, feeling tired, unmotivated and stressed. An effective break acts as a productive period of rest, after which we can return to work feeling refreshed, and sustain deep focus for longer periods of time.
Types of work breaks
When it comes to work breaks, surprisingly you have quite a lot of different approaches to choose from – differing across length, frequency, focus activity and environment. Luckily, there’s a time and a place for most of them during your day.
Microbreaks are short, regular breaks that give our eyes and body a brief rest. A 2017 study found that surgeons who took quick microbreaks to stretch showed improved performance, and another study revealed that assembly line workers showed enhanced focus after taking a microbreak. You might find it beneficial to take a microbreak every 25 minutes; simply taking a few minutes to strand and stretch, get yourself a drink, or even just walk away from your screen for a minute to look out the window can make a difference.
We’ve written before about the importance of deep breaks, and how they’re a way for us to mentally recharge and easily pick our work back up again. Many of us spend our breaks checking social media or reading emails, but these acts can just introduce new stresses or problems for our brains. Deep breaks help us pause work without moving our attention away from it. Ideas for a deep break include taking a 15 minute walk, reading an article (about something not related to work), doing a meditation session, or preparing a snack – all of which give us mental space without crowding it with more information.
Getting active during a break is a good way to counteract the negative effects of sitting for too long, and can inject us with a welcome dose of energy when we return to work. You don’t need to go for a run or do a workout to enjoy the benefits of an active break – simply going for a five minute walk every couple of hours and getting your blood pumping will help. Alternatively, you could try some yoga, or even drop and do some pushups.
Getting away from your place of work, even if for a short period, can help inject novelty and new perspective into our day. All the better if that space happens to be a green space. Getting outside and being among nature has a powerful impact on the brain, and can help improve focus as well as alleviate stress and anxiety. Walking to a local park is a perfect example, but if you don’t have much time, just sitting on a bench by some trees and taking a few quiet moments by yourself will still be beneficial.
Feeling connected to other people is linked to health and productivity, and when we’re working from home, it’s even more important to break to enjoy some social interaction. You could arrange to meet up with a coworker for a coffee or for a walk – or, you could even go for a walk by yourself and use that time to call a friend. Not only does this take your mind off work and encourage you to get out of the house, but it will also feel restorative to you on your return.
The case for scheduling your breaks
Remembering to take a regular lunch break – let alone a microbreak every half hour – can be surprisingly difficult. Some people like to play things by ear, stopping at a natural point of completion in their work, but for many of us those moments rarely present themselves. If you frequently find yourself rushing from one task to another, or getting sucked into an impossibly difficult task, you might want to consider scheduling your breaks.
The benefits here are considerable. Firstly, scheduling breaks allows us to keep work periods more focused and productive. When we know we’re working for a set duration of time, it’s easier to concentrate fully on the task in hand and not become distracted. Plus, it’s easy to get into a state of mind where we tell ourselves we’ll break in “five minutes” – but then we get diverted by something else, or feel we don’t want to break concentration. Taking a quick microbreak, however, won’t interrupt a flow state.
It’s even more beneficial to schedule breaks when you’re working from home. When the boundaries between personal and professional are as blurred as they are today, it can be frighteningly easy to get into the habit of working late just because we’re already at home. Sticking to scheduled breaks gives us permission to regularly step away from our screens and recharge our bodies and brains. Plus, scheduling breaks also helps us to keep our health in focus, and promotes the importance of wellbeing at work – something that, after the past year, we should all be prioritizing a bit more.
How you schedule those breaks is completely up to you – from adding recurring events in your calendar, using a timer to count down until your next break, or time blocking your schedule.