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Ahh!! The last couple of months have been CRAZY busy…
So, I stopped taking breaks because I thought I could get MORE done.
My productivity completely tanked.
Something needed to change.
And I had a lot of questions… Like, how do breaks help or hurt your productivity? How do you take an effective break?
Here’s what I found…
Taking a break = being lazy?
I used to believe that taking a break = being lazy.
As it turns out, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Taking a break at work is kind of taboo.
And let’s face it. No one wants to be called lazy.
Now, I’m also a bit of a workaholic. But as I watched my productivity tank while I was working harder and harder… I realized something needed to change.
So I looked into the science of taking breaks.
As you’ll see below, the evidence is pretty clear:
Taking a break at work is good for your productivity.
But there are many unanswered questions:
When should you take a break? How often? How long? What should you do during your break? And more.
I’ll answer all your questions about taking breaks here.
You’ll notice that the questions and answers are organized into 3 parts.
Part 1 will answer all your questions about the benefits of taking breaks. So, if you’re still doubting that breaks are good for your productivity, start there.
Part 2 is all about HOW to take effective breaks. How many? How long? What to do DURING your break. And more.
Part 3 is where you’ll find practical advice about how to make regular breaks part of your daily routine.
Specifically, you’ll find answers to the following questions:
- “Taking breaks is good for my productivity… Really?!”
- “Why is it important to take breaks at work?”
- “How does taking a break affect my brain?”
- “What are the most important benefits of taking a break at work?”
- “Does Taking a Break Help Me Make Better Decisions?”
- “How does taking a break affect creativity?”
- “How will breaks affect my ability to focus?”
- “How will taking a break affect my memory?”
- “How do breaks help me reach my goals?”
- “How often should I take a break?”
- “How long should my break be?”
- “What should I do during my break?”
- “Should I browse the internet during my breaks?”
- “How much should I move during my break?”
- “Should I workout during my break?”
- “Should I take a nap during my break?”
- “Should I try to meditate on my break?”
- “(What) Should I eat and drink during my break?”
- “Should I take a coffee break?”
- “So what are the best activities to do during my break?”
- “I feel guilty about taking breaks. What should I do?”
- “What if I don’t have time to take a break?”
- “What if I can’t take a break right now?”
- “How can I make breaks a regular part of my routine?”
- “What tools can I use to help me take breaks?”
Let’s jump in.
Part 1: The Benefits of Taking Breaks
I experienced first hand how NOT taking any breaks at work hurt my productivity.
I was working long days, non-stop.
But when I looked at what I actually got done… The effort and time I put in didn’t seem to justify the work I got done.
Why was I so “unproductive”?
As it turns out, I wasn’t giving my brain the time to rest that it needs.
“Taking breaks is good for my productivity… Really?!”
The short answer is…
In a 2013 article, the New York Times wrote:
A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.
Science ALSO says that there are a right and a wrong way to take a break.
The answers to the questions below will help you get the most out of your downtime.
“Why is it important to take breaks at work?”
It’s important because of what happens if you DON’T take breaks: Your productivity goes downhill… FAST.
The truth is: Humans are not wired to concentrate for 8+ hours on end. So, it’s no surprise that (on average) in an 8-hour workday, people are productive for only 3 hours or so.
Plus, not taking breaks comes with other negative effects:
- Decision fatigue
- Lack of focus
- Damaged eyes
The good news is:
As behavioral scientist Nir Eyal explains, the right kind of breaks can counter these negative effects. Good breaks reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function, and help us stay focused.
But taking too many breaks can backfire, too… Because when you take the wrong kind of breaks it actually gets HARDER to focus.
So, if you want to get more done, you need to make sure you take effective breaks during your workday.
That’s just how our brain works…
“How does taking a break affect my brain?”
Most of us are knowledge workers – we “think for a living.” And the thinking part of our brain is the prefrontal cortex:
The prefrontal cortex is where our focus, decision making, and logical thinking happens. That’s pretty much what most of us do all day. So, no wonder our brain needs a break!
It turns out, though, our brain isn’t doing “nothing” when we rest…
Research from the University of Southern California that suggests that our brain uses the downtime to make important connections that shape our identity and social behavior – things like recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and developing a code of ethics.
That’s why giving your brain a chance to rest is crucial.
Specifically, here are the most important, scientifically-backed benefits:
“What are the most important benefits of taking a break at work?”
When you DON’T take breaks it’s bad for your productivity… and health.
On the flipside…
When you DO take breaks, there are lots of advantages.
Here’s a quick summary of the most important benefits:
- Taking regular breaks will help you make better decisions (by thinking more clearly)
- Breaks spark creative ideas and new solutions
- Taking breaks helps you stay focused over long periods of time
- Breaks can help you retain information in memory (important for studying or rehearsing a speech etc.)
- Taking short breaks every now and then help you re-focus on your big-picture goals.
How do you take advantage of all of this?
By taking the right number, length, and type of break.
“Does Taking a Break Help Me Make Better Decisions?”
Yes! Here’s why…
Breaks prevent decision fatigue:
As you work, you constantly have to make decisions. But this actually wears down our willpower and ability to think clearly.
For example, one famous study showed:
Judges were less and less likely to grant parole to prisoners later in the day. Decision fatigue explains why this happens… Without taking breaks, the judges were more likely to go with the easiest decision: just say no.
That’s tragic in this case. But it applies to ALL decisions. Decisions wear us down over time.
So, if you want to make better decisions, make sure you take regular breaks.
“How does taking a break affect creativity?”
Breaks serve as creative fuel.
Being creative means connecting the dots. Specifically, connecting “dots” that you didn’t think about connecting before…
Say, you’re stuck trying to figure out a problem. A quick walk to the around the block can spark an idea for the solution.
Maybe you read a funny slogan on a billboard. Maybe you overhear a conversation while you wait in line. Maybe a conversation with a friend turns into the Aha-moment that will get you unstuck.
The point is:
Most of us, when we’re working, are focused on “output.” Kind of like I’m writing this article right now: I’m focused on putting the words on the screen. BUT…
Without input, it’s much harder to create quality output.
The good news is that even a short “change of state” in the form of a break can be the creative input you need.
That’s why taking breaks is important if you want to be more creative and come up with new solutions.
“How will breaks affect my ability to focus?”
It’s getting harder and harder to stay focused at work…
…but taking breaks can help.
People used to think concentration is about “forcing” yourself to stay focused. But a recent study from the University of Illinois BUSTS that myth.
First, the scientists confirmed what you already know from experience: if you have to focus on a single task for a long time, after a while, your performance gets worse and worse.
The solution? Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras explains:
“Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused”
In other words…
Taking breaks helps you stay focused.
Staying focused on one task for a long time is something humans haven’t been doing for too long. So, our minds just aren’t used to it.
For this reason, the best thing to do if you need to concentrate for a long time is NOT to try and force yourself to stay focused…
…but to impose short, mental breaks on yourself.
“How will taking a break affect my memory?”
There’s evidence that taking breaks helps us form memories. The brain uses the downtime to review and store new information.
But what if you need to remember a lot of new information over a few days? For example, studying for a test or preparing for a presentation.
How should you structure your “study” sessions?
Well, it depends…
New research by David F. Little of Northwestern University suggests that there’s a “memory threshold:”
If you take a long break before you reach that threshold, you won’t remember as much. So, you’re better off NOT taking a break.
DON’T study for 20 minutes, take a 30-minute break and then study for another 20 minutes. You’d be better off powering through the 40 minutes without a break.
Taking lots of mini-breaks might be even better. In the study, the group that took 5 mini-breaks in 40 minutes performed best.
“How do breaks help me reach my goals?”
You might worry that when you take a break you’ll lose momentum.
There’s some truth to that.
When I’m in the zone, I like to keep going…
When you work for too long without taking a break, you might lose track of what you’re actually trying to do. Researchers called this effect “goal habituation.”
The solution science suggests is “goal reactivation”… by taking short breaks every now and then.
Part 2: How to take Effective Breaks
As we’ve seen, the evidence of the benefits of taking breaks at work is pretty clear.
But let’s dig a little deeper into HOW to take effective breaks…
- How often should you take a break?
- How long should your breaks be?
- What should you do during your breaks?
You’ll find the answer to those questions below.
“How often should I take a break?”
Our focus, energy, and motivation moves in “waves.”
(Biologists call it Chronobiology.)
That’s probably why I always hit a slump around 3 pm…
How can taking breaks help?
Well, your break schedule should match that rhythm.
Tony Schwartz, the author of The Power of Full Engagement, calls this “pulse and pause.” And, he found that humans tend to move from full focus to fatigue every 90 minutes.
Many studies have looked at the optimal break-schedule.
The results differ slightly. But as you’ll see, the sweet spot seems to be somewhere between 30 minutes and 90 minutes:
- The University of Illinois study cited before suggest taking a break once every hour.
- Inc. Magazine suggests a break every 60-90 minutes.
- Time-tracking app Desktime says it’s best to take a break every 52 minutes (followed by a 17-minute break).
- Based on the study of professional musicians, Robert Pozen of the MIT Sloan School of Management suggests taking a break every 75 to 90 minutes.
- The popular Pomodoro Technique promotes taking a break every 25 minutes (followed by a 3-5 minute break and then a 15-30 minute break every 90 minutes or so)
But it’s not about the exact number of minutes…
How often you should take a break also depends on the TYPE of work you need to do.
If you can stay fully focused for 90 minutes as you write, keep the momentum for as long as you can.
If your thoughts start to wander after 20 minutes of reading, it’s better to take a short break. Give your focus-muscle a chance to relax. Just a few minutes later, you’ll come back fresh.
(Remember: the brain needs time to consolidate new information.)
“How long should my break be?”
Remember, our bodies naturally go through an ebb and flow of high and low energy. Ideally, you want to take advantage of that.
So, what is the ideal length of your work breaks?
After reviewing all the studies and research that’s out there, here’s my best advice:
Take SHORT breaks – say 5 to 15 minutes – every hour or so. Take a longer break – at least 30 minutes – every 2 to 4 hours (depending on your task).
I know that’s pretty broad…
But unless you want to follow a super strict schedule, based on all the research, that’s the best advice I can give.
For a more exact schedule you could follow one of these methods:
- Take a 17-minute break every 52 minutes (see the Desktime study)
- Take a 5-minute break every 25 minutes (following the Pomodoro Technique)
- As a general rule: Take a 15-minute break for every hour of focused work.
Just remember to take a longer break every 2-4 hours, too.
Another thing to remember is that top performers don’t necessarily spend more total time “working.”
But they DO spend more time completely focused.
Researcher K. Anders Ericsson found that top performers (including musicians, athletes, etc.) rarely work for more than four and a half hours per day! However they engage in so-called “deliberate practice.”
James Clear gives a good definition:
Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.
It’s easy to see why breaks are crucial for this. Remember, taking a break helps your mind to stay focused and re-focus on your goals.
Here’s my personal focus routine to get into the zone.
“What should I do DURING my break?”
So, the ability to focus is what makes you more productive while you work. And taking breaks is crucial but…
What should you do during your break?
In short: Anything that gives your brain a chance to relax.
Hengchen Dai from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania says:
“Based on past research, we would expect that the more relaxed and disengaged from work people feel during a break, the more likely they will be to benefit from taking time off.”
So, you shouldn’t to any work on your break.
But this is important…
It’s tempting do easy tasks that don’t require your full attention during your break… don’t.
Science clearly says:
If you want to be more productive overall, don’t work during your break!
The whole goal of taking a break is to shift your attention. In fact, the goal is to stop concentrating at all.
So let’s look at some specific things you can do during your break. Should you go for a walk? Should you drink coffee? Should you take a nap?
I’ll answer those questions next.
“Should I browse the internet during my breaks?”
Yes and no.
On the one hand, you want to completely take your mind off of work. And scrolling through Instagram or watching your favorite YouTube vlogger can certainly do the trick.
But there’s a downside to goofing off online during your break, too…
The problem is that non-stop social media use increases stress. And it gets worse. The Harvard Business Review reports that social media can also hurt your ability to focus and learn.
Basically, your brain gets hooked on instant gratification of seeing the next Instagram picture. And then another one. And another one.
This makes it harder and harder to focus on things that’s not immediately as rewarding. You know, things like doing your job.
There’s also a South Korean study that shows that tech-free breaks “increase vigor and reduce emotional exhaustion.”
So ideally, you want to stay away from your screen.
I can’t say I don’t browse the internet on my breaks.
But would I recommend it?
“How much should I move during my break?”
When I had a health scare a couple of years ago, my doc told me to do one thing:
Ever since then, I walk everywhere.
I do walking meetings. I make all my phone calls when I walk around NYC. We even did a Walking Challenge here at Social Triggers to get people to walk more.
So, needless to say, I believe walking is a GREAT thing to do during your break.
Walking is essential for your physical and emotional health. It reduces stress and boosts creativity.
The good news is:
You don’t have to exhaust yourself.
A short 5 minute walk is enough.
If you can, walk outside. Spending time in nature is ideal.
But really, the big benefit comes from getting up…
Sitting all day is TERRIBLE for your health.
That’s why just a little bit of movement during your break is so good for you. And that’s even beyond all the positive effects of taking a break in the first place.
So, you don’t have to move a lot. But it’s important that you do.
“Should I workout during my break?”
As I mentioned, to get the benefit of an effective break, you don’t need to move a lot.
Does that mean you shouldn’t workout during your break?
You absolutely can.
Studies have shown that a moderate level of cardio activity can boost creativity and productivity for upt to two hours.
“Almost every dimension of cognition improves from 30 minutes of aerobic exercise.”
There’s a slight catch, though… If you don’t work out regularly, you might be exhausted rather than refreshed form the workout.
The good news is you don’t need to work out that hard. A short walk is enough to get the benefit of taking a break AND reduce the negative effects of sitting all day.
Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety. But I don’t have to explain why staying fit is good for your productivity…
“Should I take a nap during my break?”
The power of a good nap is undeniable:
- Research on pilots shows that a 26-minute in-flight nap (yes, there was a copilot lol) enhanced performance by 34% and overall alertness by 54%.
- A study published in Nature Neuroscience tested how naps affect our perception throughout the day. People who took a 30-minute stayed more alert (a 60-minute nap was even better).
- A 2012 study found that a daily, 10- or 20-minute nap can significantly increase productivity and academic focus.
Now, the important follow-up question is…
How long should you nap for?
Based on the expert guide on naps by Jennifer Ackerman (who also wrote Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body), you have 3 options:
- Take a short, 20-minute nap: A quick “cat nap” should make you more alert, help you concentrate, and give your mood a little boost. If you want to give yourself an extra boost, drink a cup of coffee right before… The caffeine will kick in right as you get back to work.
- Take a 45-minute nap (but not more!): Naps of up to 45 minutes will also include REM sleep. This means you should see even more benefits from your nap (like a boost in creative thinking).
- Take a loooong (90- to 120-minutes) nap: This will give you enough time to go through a full sleep cycle. So, you won’t have to deal with sleep inertia.
But be careful. When you nap…
Beware of sleep inertia.
If you sleep more than 45 minutes but not long enough to go through a full sleep-cycle, it might take you a long time to be fully awake again.
“Should I try to meditate on my break?”
Okay, I’ve tried meditating… but I can’t do it.
That’s not to say, there are no benefits. And it’s definitely a great idea to do it during your breaks.
Remember, the goal is to completely disconnect your brain from work. When you meditate, ideally, that’s what you’ll experience.
The best practice for meditating during a break is to do it during one of your longer breaks. Say, your lunch-break.
“(What) Should I eat and drink during my break?”
Our brains basically run on glucose:
The brain lacks fuel stores and hence requires a continuous supply of glucose.
That’s why it’s a great idea to fuel your brain during your breaks.
Here a are some ideas for healthy snacks:
- Fresh fruit or dried fruit
- Protein bar
- Wasabi peas
- Hummus and veggies
- Kale chips
- Tomato juice
- Apples and peanut butter
So, go ahead and use your break as an opportunity to have a snack. Or vice versa…
Use your urge to snack as an opportunity to take a break!
“Should I take a coffee break?”
Should you actually drink coffee during your coffee break?
As it turns out, yes, there’s evidence that drinking coffee is good for your productivity… Caffeine keeps you alert, it can reduce stress, and keep you active.
Now, let’s say you take 2 coffee breaks. And let’s say you wake up between 6 am and 8 am…
When should you take your coffee breaks?
Apparently, the perfect time for your first coffee break is between 9:30 am and 11:30 am. Then, your second coffee break should be between 1:30 pm and 5:30 pm.
Oh and remember: You can drink coffee right before you take a 20-minute nap, too. That way, when you wake up, you’ll get the jolt of caffeine at the perfect time.
It looks like drinking coffee is pretty good for your productivity. But whether you like to drink coffee, water, or tea, there’s another benefit of the typical “coffee break:”
It’s often a good opportunity meet and talk to people.
So, let’s summarize…
“So what are the best activities to do during my break?”
The goal of your breaks should be to fully detach from work – even if it’s just for a moment.
So, I’ll say it again… Don’t try to combine your break with another stressful activity. Don’t do “light work” like checking emails. If you’re chatting with someone, don’t talk about work issues.
In his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Dan Pink cites a South Korean study to prove this point:
“Psychological detachment from work, in addition to physical detachment, is crucial, as continuing to think about job demands during breaks may result in strain.”
With that in mind, what are some good activities to do during your break?
How about you…
- Go for a short walk – sitting all day is bad for you. Moving is better than being stationary.
- Go outside – spending time in nature will boost your creativity and ability to focus.
- Stretch – whatever you need to do to get a moment to relax
- Take a nap – the power of a good nap is undeniable.
- Daydream – the less you’re concentrating, the better (it will ease stress and boost your mood).
- Declutter your desk or doodle – this should get your mind off work for a moment (and help you come back re-focused).
- Talk to people – friends and co-workers
- Give your eyes a break – Look away from your screen for at least 20 seconds every 20 minutes (the 20-20-20 rule)
- Have a snack/take a coffee break – your brain needs fuel to work properly.
Whatever you do, the qualities of a good break remain the same. To summarize…
Do something that will…
- Shift your focus away from work
- Get your eyes off the screen
- Get you out of your chair (and moving just a little bit)
- Give your brain a chance to truly relax
- Allow you to interact with other people
Now that you know how to take effective breaks, how do you actually make this part of your daily routine?
If you have questions about that, I’ll answer them in part 3 now.
Part 3: How to Implement Good Breaks in Your Workday
If you doubted that breaks are important, I hope you see now that they are.
And if you’ve wondered how to take effective breaks and what to do DURING your breaks… now you know.
But how do you make this part of your workday. Every day?
The first problem is that most people feel GUILTY about taking any kind of break:
According to one study, only 25% of people take more than a lunch break. Most people just “power through” their 8+ hours of work.
This is based on a deep rooted belief…
Many cultures just see taking breaks as being lazy.
But as we’ve seen, that’s not true.
So why do we still feel guilty about taking breaks?
“I feel guilty about taking breaks. What should I do?”
The first thing you should do is…
Stop feeling guilty about taking breaks.
Easier said than done, I know.
But at least now, you have all the evidence that proves: Taking breaks actually makes you MORE productive.
Depending on the work you do, it can be critical that you take enough breaks. Which reminds me of a recent uber driver…
He told me, “man, I’ve been driving for 12 hours. I’m gonna call it quits for the day soon.” Lol. Yeah, you probably should.
Or take the study that found that doctors stop washing their hands as the day goes on if they don’t take enough breaks.
Or let me remind you of top athletes that only practice for 3-4 hours a day. The difference is… They’re highly focused WHEN they work.
I’m not saying you need to take a 90-minute nap every day.
But if you do, that’s okay, too.
As long as it helps you come back to work with fresh focus, better mood, and more motivation, there’s absolutely no need to feel guilty about taking a break.
But don’t take it from me…
Tony Schwartz is the head of the productivity consulting firm The Energy Project (they advise companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple). Schwartz put it best in a recent Fortune interview:
“When demand in our lives intensifies, we tend to hunker down and push harder (…) The trouble is that, without any downtime to refresh and recharge, we’re less efficient, make more mistakes, and get less engaged with what we’re doing.”
The next problem with taking breaks?
People think they just can’t afford to take a break…
“What if I don’t have time to take a break?”
“I don’t have time” is maybe the biggest lie we tell ourselves.
Now, I get that there are times where things get crazy. You feel like there’s just NO WAY you can take even 15 minutes to relax.
But remember TWO things:
Something is better than nothing.
Even a micro-break can help you refocus.
NOT taking any breaks will make you LESS productive.
That’s the weird thing.
To quote Dan Pink, who wrote When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing:
I used to power through breaks, for whatever reason. My view was that amateurs took breaks and professionals didn’t. That’s just diametrically, 100 percent erroneous. Professionals take breaks, amateurs don’t take breaks. I started thinking about breaks as part of my performance, not as a deviation from my performance, and you should, too.
Yes! Remind yourself of this next time you feel like you have too much to do to take a break…
Professionals take breaks.
“What if I can’t take a break right now?”
Let’s say you REALLY can’t take a break right now.
But you’re losing focus. What can you do?
If possible, I suggest you switch tasks.
This will allow you to change your focus. It can almost feel like you’re taking a break. Because you are… sort of. You’re using a different part of your brain.
Speaking of switching tasks:
I recently read an interesting story about Elon Musk. Apparently, he breaks up his entire day into 5-minute slots.
If you’re actually THAT busy, dividing your day into smaller chunks can give your productivity a boost.
You don’t have to go as far as Musk. But how about 15- or 30-minute slots?
You’ll be surprised what you can achieve when you truly focus for half an hour. Then, you’ll feel like you have time for a break, too.
“How can I make breaks a regular part of my routine?”
So you want to make taking breaks a part of your routine.
That’s the GOAL.
But it can be difficult. Especially if you’re busy and driven like most entrepreneurs are. That’s why you need a system that automatically makes breaks a regular part of your day.
Here are 3 good approaches:
- Schedule breaks on your calendar: If you’re working on a strict schedule, blocking time out for breaks on your calendar is your best bet – even if it’s just two 15-minute breaks.
- Set a timer: If you do a lot of high-focus work, working in “sprints” seems the most productive approach. You can use some version of the Pomodoro Method and set a timer for 30-minutes, go with the 52-minute work and 17-minute break intervals, or whichever time is optimal for you.
- Make a “break appointment:” If you’re having a hard time sticking to your break schedule, make an appointment with someone to take your breaks together. It’s a bit tricky to get on the same schedule. But this way you’ll have someone to remind you to take a break.
There are some great tools that can help you, too…
“What tools can I use to help me take breaks?”
There are lots of easy-to-use time-tracking apps.
Here are some popular apps:
- Focus Booster app
- Be Focused – Focus Timer
Honestly? They all do the same thing. Most of these are too fancy for me. I like to keep it simple and distraction-free.
That’s why my favorite tool is… Google.
Check it out:
Just type “set timer for [X] minutes” into your search bar.
You’ll have a timer running right there in your browser!
Or just put a reminder in your calendar:
Set it to repeat every day.
Give the apps above a try and see what works for you. If you want to keep it simple, use the timer on your phone and your calendar.
Any other questions about taking breaks?
I tried to answer all the common questions about taking breaks at work here.
If I missed something, let me know in the comments.
Also, tell me about your experience.
How does taking breaks affect your productivity?
by lukas camenzind