We all love the idea of the hardworking, dedicated and self-sacrificing office superhero who works 24/7 and saves the day. However, despite what your boss may be telling you, maximum productivity is not achieved by working yourself to death. It’s accomplished through the use of smart work cycles that depend on taking breaks.
Why taking breaks is great
At the heart of the power behind taking breaks is the scientific fact that the human brain was simply not designed to work non-stop. When working on one task for a prolonged period, it must unwind, relax and recharge now and then for its cognitive functions to continue working at an optimum level.
One landmark study from the University of Illinois studied four groups of people who worked on brain-intensive tasks for 50 minutes and found that the group that took more breaks had vastly improved focus and managed to outperform the other groups.
The lead researcher Alejandro Lleras said the study proved that uninterrupted attention towards a particular task hinders performance. Breaks create the necessary diversions the brain needs for it to be able to renew its focus on the task with increased efficiency.
That’s why taking breaks can be especially helpful when working on creative tasks because briefly distracting the brain with a different stimulus allows it to generate new ideas. When you disengage from the task at hand, your subconscious mind continues to work out problems secretly. This is why you often find that you think up your best ideas when you’re not working.
Moreover, taking breaks helps increase concentration on the task because it allows cognitive resources to be regularly recharged after they’re tapped into. This benefit is particularly useful if you have a short attention span.
In addition to increased productivity, creativity and concentration, taking breaks at work is essential for your physical and mental health. Stepping away from your computer screen and moving your limbs every once in awhile is something both your eyes and arteries will greatly appreciate. Not to mention that taking breaks helps in significantly decreasing work-related stress, which is something your mind will thank you for.
When you should take breaks
Now that we’ve settled the point that taking breaks is important, a question arises: How long should the break be?
Here’s the thing: There is no golden rule when it comes to the duration of breaks. There are a variety of approaches, so you have to experiment and find out what works best for you. However, the common thread is that all methods follow this structure:
You can create your work cycles, but these are some great ideas to start with:
- The 90-minute cycle: Using this approach, you work for 90 minutes straight and then take a break of your choosing. However, other than your lunch break, a break ideally shouldn’t exceed 20 minutes. This idea is based on research that shows that people move from full focus to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes.
- The 60-minute cycle: With this approach, you work for an hour and then take a five-minute break. One study that observed employees with hand, wrist and forearm discomfort found that using this technique eliminated pain.
- The 50-minute cycle: Here, you work for 50 minutes straight and then take a 17-minute break. This idea is based on research done by DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks the computer use of employees. After studying the data related to the behavior of their most productive employees, the DeskTime team found that their highest-performing 10% tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes, followed by a break of 17 minutes in which they stepped away from their computer screen.
- The Pomodoro technique: This technique incorporates work sessions of 25 minutes followed by break sessions of five minutes. Therefore, one Pomodoro (work cycle) is 30 minutes. After four Pomodoros, you take a 30-minute break.
- The micro-break approach: Micro-breaks are little breaks that fall in the range between 30 seconds and five minutes and are regularly inserted in your work routine. In this method, you pick the duration of both the work and break session. Studies have shown that taking regular two-minute breaks increases productivity by 11.15%.
The approach you choose will depend on your work routine, what your work environment allows and most importantly the kind of work that you’re doing. For example, solving a programming problem will require a different approach from the one you’d use to do some creative writing. Try them out and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.
How you should take breaks
So now that we’ve established why and how often to take breaks, it’s natural to think about what you’re supposed to do on those breaks. Again, there is no golden rule; there are a variety of approaches that you can choose from based on what you want to achieve.
However, the common thread here is that none of them involve doing or even thinking about work. According to Psychology Today, one of the key components of an effective break is psychological detachment, which means “mentally disengaging from work thoughts” and “shifting our focus.” This helps to reduce the work-related stresses that cause fatigue and allow our brains to recover naturally.
If you don’t stop concentrating, then it’s not a break. So whatever you choose to do, make sure it doesn’t involve your mind thinking about a work-related issue.
Here are a few great ideas:
- Exercise: Using your break to engage in some physical movement can be one of the best things you can do for your body and your mind alike. Not only does exercise enhance your metabolism and increase your energy levels thus preventing fatigue, but it also increases blood flow to key brain areas that involve focus and concentration. This doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym in the middle of your workday (you get bonus points if you do though), simply taking a walk around the block or standing up and stretching is good enough.
- Meditation: You might be a bit skeptical of this one, but despite what most people think meditation has deep roots in scientific research. One study in behavioral psychology found that meditation techniques can boost creativity because they can have “long-lasting influence on human cognition, including how we think and how we experience events.” For example, mindfulness meditation is particularly useful in lowering stress levels, sharpening focus and clearing the mind of toxic negativity.
- Napping: Depending on your office environment and company policy, this one might be a bit more difficult to execute. However, if you manage to work it out with your boss and find a quiet place to get some rest, taking brief naps throughout the day can go a long way in preventing fatigue and therefore increasing your overall productivity. One landmark study found that taking 10-minute naps can “significantly improve alertness and cognitive performance.”
- Social breaks: The value of workplace relationships cannot be overstated. Taking breaks to connect with coworkers socially has been proven to improve morale, boost collaboration and most importantly increase the productivity of employees. A happy workplace can significantly contribute to the success of an organization.
- Entertainment: You probably already have the hang of this one, which is great! Playing a game, watching a funny YouTube video or even just checking your newsfeed is a great way to create the necessary distractions your brain needs now and then to unwind and refocus on the task at hand with a fresh perspective. Moreover, having fun also fulfills another key component of an effective break: The experience of positive emotions.
So there you have it. You now have an official science-based license to convince your boss that you need regular breaks to be able to function at an optimum level. Moreover, remember that being the superhero might be a romantic notion, but don’t romanticize it too much. Being more productive is way more important.
How do you take breaks at work? Tell us about your workdays in the comments below.
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