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Break often but briefly

Taking breaks is good for your body, mind and work. Explore proven methods for effective breaks and suggestions for what to do with your breaks.

8 min read


Photo of hammocks illustrating taking breaks


In previous productivity steps, we planned our work (Step 1), put systems into place to keep our people informed and in sync (Step 2) and rolled up our sleeves to get work done (Step 3). This post goes deeper on Step 4, sustaining for maximal productivity, and explores taking break.

The final three components of Step 4 all relate to self-care. The first is to break often, but briefly.

Breaking often to get more done may seem counterintuitive. I mean, who would think that that taking additional breaks would help you be more productive? Especially when you’re so busy as it is, and your to-do list is packed with things that must get done.

But hear me out. Because even if you pride yourself in your work ethic and your ability to concentrate for prolonged periods, your brain, your mind and your to-do list will thank me.

There are many reasons that we should be taking regular work breaks. Here are some of them.

1. Breaks help us to process and retain information

Our brains have two functioning modes: focused and diffused. When operating in diffused mode, our brain is more relaxed and in a daydream-type state. Some studies have suggested that we solve our most difficult problems when we’re in this diffused state (such as when showering.)

The next time you have a difficult problem to solve, try letting your brain wander and find its own solution, instead of forcing yourself to find the answer.

2. Breaks allow us to step back

When you’re very focused on the details of a complex task, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger, more strategic picture. By taking a break, you can step back and reassess your goals and priorities to make sure that you and your team are giving attention to the right tasks and projects.

3. Breaks keep us from getting bored and unfocused

It is difficult for our brains to focus on a singular task or topic for long periods. Once we get a bit past our comfort zones, we start to get unfocused, zoned out, or even irritable. All we need are brief interruptions to get back on track.

4. Breaks restore our motivation to continue long-term tasks

Similar to No. 1, breaks are helpful when we’re tasked with long-term tasks, the ones that can take many hours or multiple days to complete.  We all know how hard it can be to stay on task and get them done. By breaking the work down into chunks, we can focus more intently for a finite period of time and make steady, consistent progress.

5. Breaks help up cut down on decision fatigue

Decision fatigue means that the quality of our decisions deteriorates over time. The more mentally spent we are, the poorer our decisions. If you’re a decision-maker, such as an executive, a buyer or anyone else who constantly must make decisions (particularly big ones,) you need to stay fresh and not let fatigue affect what you do. Fatigue can also lead to decision avoidance, which can often be just as detrimental.

6. Breaks increase creativity

Taking breaks allows the unconscious mind to process the data in novel and surprising ways. This often lays the groundwork for a creative insight or breakthrough, which is the ultimate form of productivity in the Idea Economy. When we work uninterrupted, we exhaust our cognitive capacity, diminishing our ability to make creative connections.

Breaks also help us reevaluate our goals

This Harvard Business Review article points out that breaks give us the pause we need to pause and make sure we’re accomplishing the correct tasks in the right manner. Why would that be a concern? When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the details or simply go off course. However, when you break and then reconnect, you first can (and should) take a few seconds to think more globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve, which keeps you mindful of your objectives.

While it may sound good to break more often, there’s a good chance that you might feel guilty doing so. A study by Staples of office workers and managers revealed that more than a quarter of workers who spend more than eight hours a day at work didn’t take a break other than at lunch.

A primary reason given was guilt. This, despite 90% of the bosses surveyed saying that they encouraged breaks and with 86% of employees agreeing that taking breaks makes them more productive!

Perhaps going into our days with a “break plan” can help. After all, if we plan for breaks it either means that we already see them as valuable or it’s we will likely value them over time.

Here are some “break plan” methods to consider.

Illustration of a timer for taking breaks

The Pomodoro technique

One of the most common ways to build in breaks is to work in small bursts. The Pomodoro technique is a classic for this type of approach. The technique says to work straight for 25 minutes (set a timer before you start,) and then take a short break for five minutes. After four Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break of 30 minutes or so.

Knowing that you have a finite end to each time chunk adds an element of urgency, which helps you be more focused and decisive. It also allows you to push aside distractors knowing that you can attend to them soon enough.

90-minute work blocks

If 25 minutes seems too short, no worries. Working in 90-minute intervals has long been a favorite method of maximizing productivity because it works with our bodies’ natural rhythms (as we move from higher to lower levels of alertness, what some researchers have dubbed the ultradian rhythm.)

Professor K. Anders Ericsson has famously studied elite performers such as violinists, athletes, chess players, and actors. He found that the very best performers practiced in focused sessions of no more than 90 minutes.

Two 15-minute breaks per day

This one is simpler even if it’s not as effective as the two listed above. Just block out two planned, 15-minute intermissions in your day — one in the mid-morning and the other in the mid-afternoon. Since most of us are least productive at around 3 p.m., you definitely don’t want to skip that break!

What to do on your break

OK, so you’re going to take a break. But what are the ways to make best use of them?

Before we list them, keep in mind that a key element of an effective break is psychological detachment, or mentally disengaging from work-related thoughts. Detachment helps us to directly reduce work demands that are causing fatigue and to naturally recover. Effective breaks also elicit positive emotions, which reverse the negative effects of work tasks and increase blood flow to the areas in the brain that we use to focus.

  • Take a walk: A short stroll (or better yet, a quick power walk) can increase blood flow to the brain, which can boost creative thought. Regular walks can enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits while improving memory and cognitive performance.
  • Daydream: Daydreaming is where we often do some of our most creative thinking.
  • Doodle: Research shows that doodling can stimulate new ideas and help us stay focused.
  • Eat: Grab a healthful, energy-packed snack.
  • Read: Something other than a work-related book, fiction in particular, can take us away from our work reality for a bit. Studies have shown that people who read fiction often are better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.
  • Get a coffee: A break and some added caffeine. What could be better? (So long as you don’t overdo it or drink it too late in the day. More of that in a later post.)
  • Listen to music: Music can energize and/or relax us, depending on genre and other considerations.  Focusing on it can significantly improve our motor and reasoning skills, as well as other health benefits.
  • Nap: Even a nap of 10 minutes has been shown to improve cognitive function and decrease sleepiness and fatigue.
  • Exercise: A good workout  can make you happier, give you more energy and help you gain focus. They need not be long or overly arduous to be effective.
  • Chat: Believe it or not, chatting with co-workers can increase your productivity. In a study of call center workers, those who talked to more co-workers got through calls faster and felt less stressed at work.
  • Meditate: Meditation is a great way to relax your brain quickly. It also lowers stress levels and improves overall health as well as creativity.
  • Go outside: Spending time outside, and in nature in particular, is good for your immune system and has been shown to improve focus and relieve stress.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is an executive coach who helps leaders and their teams become more productive. Download his productivity blueprint and take his productivity assessmentReach out to him to learn more about his high-powered mastermind groups that help leaders power up, problem solve, and get more done.

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