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Taking Breaks at Work

Whether you're at home or in the office, the feeling of fatigue at work is real. Taking regular breaks at work has been scientifically proven to keep workers focused and productive, but just how often should you be taking breaks? What kind of activities are actually productive, and which ones will leave you feeling more tired than when you were working?

What Science Says About Breaks’s a lot. In a nutshell, taking regular, well timed breaks throughout the day leads to a more productive employee. A study from the University of Illinois found that the brain tends to have more difficulty focusing after concentrating on a single task for too long, which usually hinders overall productivity. An important aspect of performing to one’s full potential is having the motivation to do so, but the human brain loses motivation by the minute when it has been concentrating on the same thing for too long. Taking short, regular breaks helps to replenish attention and mental energy to focus better one one returns to work.

But how long and frequent should those breaks be? There are 3 main schools of thought:

1. The Pomodoro Technique - 25 minutes of work, 5 minute break

This method, developed by Francesco Cirillo, is becoming increasingly popular. It requires full focus on a task for 25 minutes, walk away from the task for 5 minutes, then repeat. And, yes, for any of you Italian speakers, this is called the “Tomato Technique,” due to the tomato shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used to time his intervals.

2. The Latavian Experiment - 52 minutes of work, 17 minute break

When the Draugiem Group, a group of companies in Latavia, installed software on their employees’ computers to see how long their most productive employees worked for, they found that those employees did not work longer than anybody else. On the contrary, these employees actually took more breaks, averaging just under an hour of work and just under 20 minutes of break time.

3. Pulse and Pause - 90 minutes of work, 15 minute break

Developed by Tony Schwatrz, founder of The Energy Project, Pulse and Pause is based on his research that the brain naturally moves from full focus to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes. After that time, the brain sends signals that we need to rest and recharge, but we typically ignore them and opt for an energy boost like caffeine or sugar. Instead, spend 15 minutes taking a productive break (more on that below).

All of these techniques are backed by research, so there is not really one right answer to how long you should work then take a break. The most common answer to that question is to try them all and see what works best for you. Or, if you already take breaks, set timers on your phone throughout the day and see how long you naturally work and break for. (I tend to be in the Pomodoro Technique camp, thanks to my naturally short attention span and wandering mind)

The Proper Way to Take a Break

Yes, there are right and wrong ways to take breaks, meaning there are breaks that will leave you with less energy and motivation, and ones that will make you feel refreshed and refocused. There are 2 main components to taking an effective break: psychological detachment and experiencing positive emotions. In other words, think about or do something else that will bring about happy thoughts. Thinking about or doing something non-work related helps to reduce fatigue being caused by work tasks and begin recovering, and positive emotions increase blood flow to the parts of the brain that help us focus.

The Breaks You Should be Taking

The bottom line for this section is to do something that will make you feel more positive, whether it be engaging or disengaging activities. It is perfectly acceptable, and even important, to just sit and stare out the window and something that is not your computer screen. However, if this whole break at work thing is new for you, below is a list of 5 activities to try during your next break interval:

  1. Meditation - a guided way to sit and just be, we suggest the apps Headspace or Calm to help you out

  2. Physical activity - taking a quick walk around the block will be enough to wake up tired muscles and get the blood flowing

  3. Learn something new - Duolingo can help you learn a new language over short, daily sessions, and Lumosity will improve your cognitive function and memory skills

  4. Help out a colleague - connecting with others helps you feel social connectedness

  5. Set a new goal - write down your goals and ambitions, then think of one thing you can do today to get one step closer to achieving them.

For a more extensive list of ideas, here are 51 ideas for breaks to get your through your day.

There you have it! Remember, as long as you are taking breaks that will leave you feeling refueled and energized (i.e., not making a third cup of coffee to go with your Snickers), it is really up to you to discover how long you need to work then break for to perform the best that you can. Also, if you have gotten to the end of this post thinking, “That was nice, but taking a break would leave me less time in the day to get everything done,” then you are exactly the person that should be taking regular breaks. Try it, if only for a week, and see what kind of a difference taking breaks during your working hours will make.

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