Taking a break is a key part of being productive and maintaining physical and mental health. Breaks from work reduce decision fatigue, replenish motivation, and even help us consolidate memories. A study from the National Institutes of Health found that short breaks may also boost skill and knowledge acquisition.
But what makes our breaks the most effective? Simply stepping away from your work and taking an effective break that really helps your productivity are two different things.
How often should you take a break and how long should that break be? These are both important questions.
How to take an effective break? This is the million-dollar question.
One popular theory on optimal break times is based on ultradian rhythms. This concept was investigated by legendary sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, who found that the 90 minutes it takes us to experience the full spectrum of sleep maps onto how our alertness fluctuates while we’re awake, too. Applying this to break time suggests you should take a proper break at a minimum of every 90 minutes to move with your natural rhythms.
For an alternative view, the time management company Desk Time arrived at a remarkably precise figure by examining performance data from productive people. They concluded that the best pattern was to do focused work for 52 minutes and then break for 17.
Take 15 (or 17)?
It should be pretty clear that a rigid work/break schedule would result in havoc in a collaborative environment and specifically on our calendars. Good luck coordinating a meeting that runs from 10:09 to 11:01.
You’ll probably want to use the data as a loose guide, not a golden rule.
In better news for your schedule, there’s compelling evidence that even switching your attention to something else for a very short amount of time, known as a micro break, can help refresh your focus.
A study by the University of Illinois found that subjects who were given an alternative task to focus on for a brief time could sustain their performance on the primary task far better than those who weren’t.
Try out different break patterns as an experiment to see what works well for you. Remember that you’ll probably need a mixture of long and short breaks throughout the day. Your optimal break time will also change depending on the type of work you’re doing.
To really understand your needs, you may find it useful to document how your energy, focus, and productivity levels change throughout the day. That way, you can better identify when taking a break would do you the most good.
Switching Off and Disconnecting
Whether you’re being advised to “switch off”, “unplug”, “step away,” or “get a change of scenery”, there are sound reasons why many of the phrases surrounding break time involve disconnecting.
Separating yourself from your task helps you to achieve psychological detachment. This is the ability not to think about work-related matters when you’re off-duty. Detachment (to a degree) is essential for mental health as it helps you prevent burnout and maintain balance.
Gaining some mental distance will also help you with your task. You’ll return to it with more objectivity, helping you spot new angles or mistakes you wouldn’t have if you’d remained only semi-focused on it.
Choosing the Right Break
Different break activities provide different productivity benefits. You want to ensure the break you take satisfies your current needs and energy level.
Take a moment to evaluate how you’re feeling and then choose an activity that will help to address that. Here are several effective break-time options.
As little as 5 minutes of breathwork can make a huge difference. Taking a few minutes to meditate could help you find your equilibrium. The benefits of meditation aren’t all in the mind – it’s been shown to effectively reduce the stress hormone cortisol.
If you’re feeling restless, tense, or stressed, movement could help you loosen up and relax. Not only will it improve your mood, but it will aid in alleviating the physical symptoms of stress.
Physical activity can also help banish feelings of drowsiness by raising your heart rate and increasing your endorphins, giving you an energy boost.
Movement increases alertness by improving blood flow to the brain, helps combat stress, and boosts your mood. A survey found that people reported an increase in their performance levels on the days they exercised.
Given that a very common reason for not exercising is feeling as though there just isn’t enough time in the day, fitting it into your workday breaks is a great way to be more active without having to massively change your schedule.
Not sure how to fit movement into your 15? Try this list of desk-based exercises from Healthline. A couple of squats, jumping jacks, a few pushups, and some stretching is all you need to get loosened up, body and mind. Or keep it simple and go for a (vigorous) walk around the block.
Keeping your blood sugar and hydration levels up is crucial for productivity.
Get a nutritious snack or drink, and take time to properly savor it. Nuts, dried fruit, popcorn, and hummus are all great options that will raise your energy levels without causing a sugar high…and crash.
And we should mention caffeine as it’s probably the most common form of a break. While it can be helpful for short productive bursts, it can also bring on a crash as its effects wear out.
Heading online during your break is, for many, an opportunity to connect with people outside work, pursue your interests, and stay on top of non-work productivity, all things which can boost your mood and are necessary.
Having a sound approach to your digital well-being is really important here, though. Make sure that your time online leaves you feeling fulfilled (no doomscrolling!) and that you aren’t half-watching your work notifications.
A book provides the ideal respite from screentime and work, as it requires all your attention.
There are a huge number of benefits to reading, ranging from neurological (it helps to strengthen your concentration) to professional (it’s a powerful way to acquire new knowledge and skills).
There’s plenty of good to be gained from reading for pleasure, too, so don’t limit yourself to work-related books. Your fifteen minutes can be a chapter. Do that every day, and you’ll be hitting your reading targets in no time.
Working intensively on a task can be a very isolating experience. Taking time to chat with a colleague could be just what you need to unwind and reset.
Positive social interactions boost your mood and can help to reduce the long-term effects of stress. Sharing negative feelings about what you’re working on with someone else also helps you put them into perspective and overcome imposter syndrome.
When you stop focusing intensively, your brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) becomes more active. This type of unfocused thinking, also known as “defuse mode thinking”, helps you process information, consolidate memories, and create links between ideas. It serves a different purpose than meditation, which often requires you to focus on a particular thing, like your breath or a visualization.
Allowing your mind to wander may even activate the problem-solving parts of your brain, meaning daydreaming could uncover the solution to problems you’ve been grappling with.
Be Intentional About Your Breaks
While breaks are meant to be relaxing, there are still advantages to approaching them with a purpose in mind. Take note of how you feel going into your break time – that way, you can pick the activity that best fits your needs.
The optimal time, duration, and frequency of breaks will vary from person to person and from task to task. Taking more effective breaks involves learning how you work and recognizing what you need.