We know that stepping away from work and taking quality breaks during the day can really help us to up our game. We’re more energised, switched on and creative after a refreshing breather, and thus able to achieve more. Then why are many of us so lousy at taking breaks? Largely because our minds and bodies are sending us an array of mixed signals … They often tell us to take a break when we shouldn’t and to keep working when we should actually stop. So let’s explore what we can do about this tricky issue, and how we can create – and stick to – a healthy routine.
If you’re interested in improving your productivity, you must be aware that taking regular breaks from work is good for you. Not only athletes and physical labourers need to take breaks to maximise their performance, but anyone whose job involves prolonged mental activity. By ‘sharpening the saw’, you can quickly make up for the ‘lost’ time away from work.
When taken at the right time and in the right way, breaks can replenish your energy and mental resources, allowing you to stay focused for extended periods of time. Effective breaks can improve your brain function, help you learn new information, and enhance your creativity – which is just what you need to find new solutions to problems. Quality time away from work tasks can also reduce stress while elevating your mood and motivation.
After working head down for a long period of time, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and to lose sight of the bigger picture of your job. However, when you return to your task after a short breather, you should be in a better state of mind to connect with your purpose and to reassess your priorities. This is a good time to ensure that your work is not only efficient but also effective.
With a refreshed mind – and thus improved self-control – you naturally make more intelligent decisions. You find it easier to block out external distractions and to cultivate positive and healthy habits.
We’re not very good at taking breaks
Most of these benefits are common knowledge, or at least common sense. Yet, most of us don’t take enough breaks, or we don’t take breaks the right way.
- We take breaks too late. When we’re exhausted, our work performance has dropped already, and from this state it’s much harder to recover.
- We take breaks too early, before getting the chance to immerse ourselves in what we do. In other words, we quit before reaching a state of peak performance.
- We take ‘fake’ breaks. We procrastinate, seeking momentary escapes from the challenges ahead of us, instead of finding effective ways to recharge. As a result, we often end up in a spiral, feeling increasingly scattered and exhausted.
- When we’re on a ‘break’, we don’t allow ourselves to switch off and relax. We keep putting pressure on ourselves – we continue doing work-related tasks, we talk about work, we think of work, or feel guilty about not working.
It’s all a bit counterintuitive
The challenge is knowing when is the right time to take a break.
It feels counterintuitive to stop what you’re doing when you’re on a roll. However, the truth is, breaks are most effective when you stop working before you get tired.
In his brilliant book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie tells the story of an average physical labourer, Mr. Schmidt, who was selected to take part in a productivity experiment. He was required to follow the instructions of a supervisor with a stopwatch, who told him exactly when to work and when to rest. Mr. Schmidt ended up working approximately 26 minutes in an hour and resting for 34 minutes, so he rested more than he worked. Yet, he managed to load almost four times the weight in a day than other men did in the same job. His exceptional performance, which he was able to maintain for years, was attributed to the fact that he always rested before the point where he would otherwise get tired.
This strategy also applies to mental work. And while quadrupling your productivity is probably a long shot, you’ll likely notice amazing results if you give it a try. But please be aware that the ideal time to rest depends on your task and how you’re wired. There’s no scientific consensus about the optimal work rhythm. So you need to work out for yourself when to work and when to rest, paying close attention to the signals of your body and mind.
Unfortunately, the signs of an overworked mind are not always obvious. You may not catch yourself yawning and dozing off. Instead, you might become irritable and easily distracted. You possibly struggle to think creatively, and start playing too safe. You might start to make inferior decisions, and to give in to unproductive habits such as multitasking. Perhaps you find it difficult to resist temptations such as checking your emails too often, or surfing the web for entertainment when you’ve got work to do. Or maybe you keep reaching for snacks even when you’re not hungry.
A couple more twists
Do you know the feeling when every cell in your body is aching to get away from what you’re doing? I bet you do. It feels like you’re overdue for a break. However, in this situation the best strategy could be to press on, since you might be just minutes away from getting into the zone.
Depending on what you do, you might need to push yourself to stay on task for half an hour or more before you get into the right head space. Moving beyond this phase can be hard work, but quitting – as suggested by our instincts – would be a mistake.
And here is a final conundrum … Taking breaks at the right time (and in the right way, as we’ll explore in the next article) requires discipline and willpower. Simply giving in to the confusing signs of your body and mind could send you off track. But when you most desperately need a well-deserved breather, your mental resources are already depleted, which means that your discipline and willpower are probably also a bit weak.
As a result, you might end up making the easiest and most convenient choice rather than the most logical one. This explains, at least in part, why most of us fail at taking well-timed, effective, restorative breaks during our work days, and why we keep making those nonsensical mistakes we talked about earlier.
So how can you tell when it’s the right time for a break?
Whenever you find yourself wondering whether you should step away from your task or continue what you’re doing, ask yourself:
- Have I given myself enough time to get into the zone? Does it make sense to take a break at this point of time? Have I expended much of my mental energy? Will my brain and body really benefit from resting right now? Am I ready to take a proper break, put work aside and do something that will refresh me?
- Or am I acting on an impulse? Is work just a bit too hard or boring right now? Am I trying to escape the challenges ahead of me, and craving some entertainment?
After contemplating these questions, and being honest with your answers of course, you should know the right thing to do.
Find your natural pace and rhythm
It’s worth exploring your own natural pace and rhythm – how long to stay on task, when to take breaks and for how long.
There are a number of different techniques recommended by scientists and experts.
- Scientists have discovered that our levels of energy and alertness fluctuate in approximately 80-120 minute cycles – not only while we sleep but also when we’re awake. This is called our bodies’ ultradian rhythm. So if you work in 90-minute blocks, followed by 20 minutes of rest, you can stay in sync with your natural rhythm, which could help you maximise your performance.
- Other experts recommend that you take a break after working somewhere between 50 and 90 minutes. As one study suggests, the recipe for peak productivity is to work for 52 minutes at a time and then to rest for 17 minutes.
- The Pomodoro Technique, developed in the late 1980’s, involves 25-minute intervals of intense work, separated by 3-5-minute breaks. Every fourth work session should be followed by a longer, 15-30-minute break.
- If you’re unable to take frequent breaks throughout the day, you’ll probably find that taking a decent lunch break as well as two 15-minute intermissions in a day can still help. It’s best to take a break in the mid-morning, and one at around 3 pm when you’re most likely to be hit by the afternoon slump.
- In certain situations, it’s important that you don’t cut your focused sessions too short. When you’re learning a new skill, for example, you’ll remember more if you can power through a 40-minute study or practice session either without any breaks or with frequent short breaks. If you take a long break before the 40 minutes learning threshold or cut your session short, you might not retain as much, as shown by science.
I suggest you experiment with these techniques, trying out each for a few days and checking in with yourself at the end of each day to see how much you’ve achieved. You might also want to combine some of these ideas and develop your own unique schedules. You’ll probably find that shifting your rhythm depending on what you do and how you use your brain helps you maximise your performance.
For example, ninety minutes is a good amount of time for me to get on a roll and make good progress with writing reports or analysing data. Then I need to take a substantial break. On the other hand, when I brainstorm or engage in other creative tasks, I need to refresh my mind more often. However, after a brief break – typically moving around and stretching my body – I’m usually ready to carry on with revived energy and clarity.
Put what you know into practice
Relying on your self-discipline and willpower to take breaks at the right times is not sustainable. It’s therefore best to schedule breaks in advance – based on the understanding of your natural rhythm – and to put these breaks into your calendar. Alternatively, you might want to set an alarm or use a suitable app to keep yourself in check.
You might be surprised how much you can achieve once you get this right. I know people who are able to engage in mentally demanding tasks all day long, staying focused and energised, because they have mastered the art of taking breaks. Their productivity seems superhuman. But ironically, the key to their success is the very fact that they know their own limits, and they make the conscious effort to look after themselves.
I’m sure this is something you can do too.
In the following article we explore what you can do to make the most out of your break time – how to get refreshed, and how to avoid going down the rabbit hole.