How to Take Better Breaks to Boost Your Productivity

Get Organized-How to Take Breaks That Boost Productivity

You’ll never be the best you can be if you aim to be 100 percent productive all the time. It’s impossible for any worker to work nonstop without paying a price, be it a decrease in quality, output, or safety. We all need to take breaks.

Generally, knowledge workers (myself included) are responsible for their own break schedules. It’s up to us to determine when to take a 2-minute break to surf Facebook, or how slowly to stroll down the hall to get a glass of water.

Get OrganizedPeople often take breaks based on intuition, without any sort of regard for how long they need to recuperate or when they will take their next break. And not everyone has good intuition. It’s easy to get led down an Internet rabbit hole while taking a break. It’s also easy to stop one task in hopes of taking a break only to get caught up in checking email, and that’s not a break.

The Theory of Breaks
To take useful breaks that actually allow us to be more productive, it helps to understand the theory of why and how they work.

When describing workplace burnout, which is what we’re trying to avoid when we take breaks, most researchers turn to something called the model of conservation of resources. The theory, developed by Stevan E. Hobfoll in the late 1980s, explains how people handle stress. In short, it says that we all have internal resources for coping with stress, and we can use our resources for a while, but at some point, we need to rebuild the resources that we lost.

At the time Hobfoll came up with this theory, experts were starting to understand that stress is constant and ubiquitous, rather than being caused by single events only. In other words, we experience stress just by working. There doesn’t have to be a traumatic event at work that causes stress. Stress is always there, and we are always using our resources to deal with it. When we are running low on resources and our remaining resources are threatened, that’s burnout.

Other researchers have further questioned the conditions that are needed to rebuild resources that we lose while coping with stress. For example, two researchers who studied the effects of vacations concluded that positive work reflection, mastery (i.e., working on a skill), and relaxation help rebuild resources. Socializing on the weekend also seems to help, as does not dealing with work-related hassles when you’re supposed to be working.

What we can take away is that to be relieved of work stress, we need to

  1. not work and
  2. do something enjoyable.

It may sound like common sense, but if you’ve ever taken a break from a work task by checking email (which is still work and hardly enjoyable), you didn’t really take a break, did you?

What Kind of Breaks Are Best?
Putting aside weekends and holidays, what kinds of at-work breaks are effective? That is to say, what do we need to do to stop further resource loss or even build a little back up again?

Studies on at-work breaks, including those spent surfing the Web, and what makes them effective suggest breaks should be

  • short,
  • intermittent, and
  • enjoyable.

As previously mentioned, the break also must actually be a break from work and work-related stuff. Email is not a break, nor it turns out, is complaining about work with coworkers, cathartic as it may be.

Putting numbers on the length and frequency of breaks is tricky. Some studies have attempted it for knowledge workers, but there is no number that’s agreed upon across multiple studies. A popular and often re-blogged 2014 post on The Muse says the ideal break schedule is to work for 57 minutes, followed by a 17-minute break, but I wouldn’t rely too heavily on that. Those numbers, which come from a computer-monitoring software company, don’t include any rich details about the subjects, their line of work, the raw data, or how it was analyzed.

A better study found that the optimal amount of time for breaks is about 12 percent of the workday, and again, short intermittent breaks were found to be better than one or two long breaks. If we take 12 percent and apply it to an 8-hour work day, then we get about 58 minutes of break time. As an example, five breaks of about 12 minutes each would do the trick.

Tools That Help You Take Smarter Breaks
There is a lot more to taking effective breaks than knowing why they’re beneficial, what they should be like, and how often to take them. There’s also the matter of sticking to the breaks you decide to take and getting back to work when they’re over.

An app that I use from time to time when I need to be more regimented with my work/break pattern is Strict Workflow. This plug-in for Chrome loosely (but without trademark violation) implements the Pomodoro Technique on your computer.

Pomodoro Technique is a method of working that separates time into work phases and break phases. So you work for xminutes and break for y minutes, and repeat. The name comes from using kitchen timers, which were often in the shape of tomatoes, to time each phase. The Chrome extension is nothing more than a timer that changes color and buzzes an alarm when either phase is up. One added benefit of using a plug-in rather than a kitchen timer is that while you’re in the work phase, you can set Strict Workflow to block you from accessing certain URLs that might distract you from work, such as Facebook and Twitter.

There are other break apps that run on your operating system rather than in the browser, such as Time Out for Mac. Break apps don’t just time you and lock you out of websites that prevent you from working during a work phase. They also lock you out of your entire computer during the break phase, forcing you to stop working. Your screen only unlocks after the break time you set runs out.

Break apps are commonly used by people trying to avoid repetitive stress injuries and computer-related eye strain because they all but mandate that you leave your workstation during each break. If you enjoy surfing the Web as part of your break, use a plug-in instead. Or, make a rule for yourself that you’ll only do leisure Internet surfing on a mobile device.

One more way to make sure you add breaks into your day is to get up and leave your desk every time the idle alert vibrates on your fitness tracker. Many fitness trackers now have this feature. During a window of time that you set, such as 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., if the tracker catches you sitting still for more than so many minutes, it vibrates and sometimes also flashes a message on the display. The default for most trackers is 60 minutes of idle time, but often you can customize it. Set it for 55 minutes, perhaps, to give yourself an extra few minutes to wrap up your thoughts before you get up and take a proper break.


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