It’s only natural to think you need to be chained to your desk for hours at a time in order to get things done. Workaholics are oft celebrated; they even have their own national holiday. If you aren't taking breaks, however, you're probably decreasing your productivity rather than improving it.
Here's the science behind why breaks are so critical to your workflow, as well as some advice on the best ways to unchain yourself from your desk every once in awhile:
The Science Behind Taking Breaks
Pausing your work might seem counterproductive. It's time you could spend finishing your project. Also, in some companies, being away from your desk can be frowned upon, as if you're wasting time.
Your brain is like a muscle, however, and it requires an incredible amount of energy. Thanks to the circadian rhythm, the cyclical patterns our bodies are hard-wired into for sleep, eating, and thinking, your brain can only focus for so long before it needs a break. Our brains store and use glucose as fuel, and this gets depleted quickly.
Non-stop focus on one thing for hours on end will only leave you drained. Take a well-timed break, however, and your mind will be sharper, more focused, and more energized.
As the New York Times explains, "Although many of us can't increase the working hours in the day, we can measurably increase our energy. Science supplies a useful way to understand the forces at play here. Physicists understand energy as the capacity to do work. Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable."
It's like taking a vacation: You might feel guilty about doing it, but it's necessary if you want to avoid burnout, work better, and be happier. And hey, that’s good news!
How To Take Better Breaks
The bad news, however, is that reading Facebook or checking your email every five minutes don't count as productive breaks. Look at it this way, you want to feel restored and re-energized after your breaks, rather than just push your work back.
The best way to take a real break? Unplug at least 15-20 minutes after each 60 to 90 minute work sprint. 60 to 90 minute work sessions make the most sense because that's how much time your brain can be fueled or taxed on any one activity, Inc. points out, although time-tracking app Desktime found that the most productive people actually spent 52 minutes working followed by a 17-minute break.
You don't have to be as precise as that, but schedule your work in chunks. Researcher Anders Ericsson found that elite violinists weren't spending more time practicing the violin--they were engaging in more deliberate practice: 90-minute periods of practice, followed by short breaks. And 20-30 minute naps in the afternoon as well.
The Pomodoro productivity technique dedicates 25 minutes of focus to one task, followed by a 5-minute break.
"Although many of us can't increase the working hours in the day, we can measurably increase our energy. Physicists understand energy as the capacity to do work. Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable."
- The New York Times
Adjust your focus time for how your energy ebbs and flows and the type of work you need to do. Writing, for example, is best done in 90 minute stretches. For researching and reading, however, 25 or 30 minute sprints would be fine.
If you want to get the most out of your break, try one of these suggestions:
- Take a walk outside, which can reduce stress and boost creativity
- Eat lunch or a snack and get hydrated. Fuel your brain's need for glucose
- Take a nap. Depending on how much time you can nap, you can improve your memory, boost alertness, and make up for lost sleep
- Try meditating, which is like exercise for your brain
- Declutter your desk, since clutter is distracting
Just make sure you actually take your breaks so you can get to peak productivity. The Chrome Browser extension Fitbolt, for example, actually reminds you to take breaks and stay healthy. Any timer or established habit will work, too.
Ask The Experts
Here’s some more good news: professionals agree. Some of the most productive and successful people around also highly recommend taking breaks:
"Don’t worry about breaks every 20 minutes ruining your focus on a task. Contrary to what I might have guessed, taking regular breaks from mental tasks actually improves your creativity and productivity. Skipping breaks, on the other hand, leads to stress and fatigue."
-Tom Rath, New York Times bestselling author
"For the first several books I wrote, I typically sat at my desk for 10 or even 12 hours at a time. I never finished a book in less than a year. For my new book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, I wrote without interruptions for three 90 minute periods, and took a break between each one. I had breakfast after the first session, went for a run after the second, and had lunch after the third. I wrote no more than 4 1/2 hours a day, and finished the book in less than six months. By limiting each writing cycle to 90 minutes and building in periods of renewal, I was able to focus far more intensely and get more done in far less time."
-Tony Schwartz, CEO and founder of The Energy Project
"No matter how much pressure you feel at work, if you could find ways to relax for at least five minutes every hour, you'd be more productive."
-Dr. Joyce Brothers, psychologist and columnist
In the end, you might work better by spending less time on work. So go on, give yourself a break.
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