No one really teaches you how to take breaks. I mean, it’s pretty self-explanatory, right? You stop working for a while to go eat a snack (fun-size candy bar, anyone?), make a phone call, ponder the meaning of life, plan your Halloween costume, and so on. And then you go back to work.
But here’s the thing. We should be taught how to take breaks. Or at least guided on how to make the most of them, especially with the holiday season right around the corner. Because taking breaks effectively can actually do us a world of good. Taking better breaks means you’ll return to work fresh and recharged. And you’ll return home less likely to go swimming in a deep sea of mini chocolate bars. You might even find yourself happier, healthier, and more productive, according to research. (More on that shortly).
So let’s take a deeper look at why hitting pause at work is so important, the benefits of taking breaks, and how you can make the most of them. Trust us: It’s information worth knowing.
Why Are Breaks at Work Important?
It may sound paradoxical, but not doing work is a necessary part of getting work done. Why? Because our brains need downtime in order to function at their best. Downtime gives our brains the opportunity to process new information, to make connections, to be struck unexpectedly by ideas that have been bubbling beneath the surface.
Here are three ways work breaks boost your brainpower.
1. Breaks help you make decisions
Does decision-making ever make you feel paralyzed? Same. You might just need to take breaks more often.
Take this study from 2011 that looked at rulings made by judges in court cases. It found that favorable rulings were most likely to be made directly after a meal break. The more time that had passed since the judge took a break, the less likely they were to grant parole.
So what does this tell us? Other than that judges get cranky when they’re hungry, just like the rest of us, it hints at something called decision fatigue. Basically, you’re not so good at making decisions when your brain is tired, and you’ll often default to the decision that takes the least amount of effort. Or an impulsive one. Hence why you’re better off making important decisions after you’ve had a break.
2. Breaks boost creativity
Let’s say you need to do a creative task. Since we know that staring at a blank piece of paper for hours on end is not the best way to make your creative juices flow, let’s opt for something better. Like hitting the pause button.
When you take breaks, ideas have time to percolate. Switching focus away from the task temporarily also allows you to overcome creative blocks—as was noted by one study that measured people’s ability to generate creative lists of items for two different categories. The study found that participants performed better when alternating between the categories rather than when working steadily on one at a time. The shift in focus actually allowed for a less rigid creative process.
Other research has found that we’re better at thinking creatively when on our feet—especially if we head outside—compared with sitting at a desk.
3. Breaks restore motivation and focus
K. Anders Ericsson is an expert in what makes people experts. Hint: It has to do with practice—but also with taking breaks.
In his research, Ericsson found that elite performers (like musicians and athletes) rarely practice their craft for more than an hour at a time and only for up to five hours per day. Without rest, they’re prone to overtraining and, eventually, total burnout.
“Expert performers from many domains engage in practice without rest for only around an hour,” says Ericsson. The limiting factor is “an inability to sustain the level of concentration that is necessary” for longer periods.
This same phenomenon has been found in other studies. Take this 2011 study, which found that even short breaks from a task actually help you focus on that task for longer. Once again, performance on a task goes down the longer we focus on it. Breaks allow us time and space to restore our motivation reserves and re-hone our focus.
So we’ve established that downing more caffeine and staring harder at your screen is not a substitute for real, cultivated focus. But when should you take breaks, then, and how should you spend them? Let’s explore.
How Often Should You Take Breaks at Work?
The biggest key to taking effective breaks is to understand that you can only work productively for so long before you start to lose focus.
How long? Research on that differs, but it’s generally thought that 90 minutes is the maximum before our focus really takes a nosedive. (Ericsson’s 1993 research on deliberate practice backs this up.) Seem like too long? It might be, depending on your preferences and the nature of your work. For example, a study by productivity software, DeskTime, found that the most productive people powered through tasks for an average of 52 minutes, before taking a 17-minute break.
And that still might be too long. Another popular approach? Tomatoes. As in the Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes work followed by five minutes rest. Repeat.
Since humans are all unique, you’ll need to figure out what works best for you. And that might even be different for different days, depending on your mood and alertness.
If there’s one thing to bear in mind, it’s that we work best when in a state of “flow”—aka, being in the zone, fully involved in whatever activity we’re doing. Pay attention to when you’re deep in that flow state. You may need to delay a scheduled break to take advantage of it or take an unscheduled break when your focus leaves the building.
How do you take a break effectively?
Taking an effective break is mostly about what you spend the time doing. Put it this way: Staying at your desk and continuing to stare at your screen is not the best use of your break. Instead, aim to incorporate one of the following activities.
1. Take an exercise break
Getting a little physical activity is one of the best things you can do with a work break (especially if your job is sedentary).
Even better news? You don’t have to spend an hour sweating to make a difference. One study found that one daily 15-minute physical activity break “significantly improved participants’ high-density lipoprotein levels”—aka, their good cholesterol— “thereby mitigating at least one unfavorable consequence of prolonged sitting.”
After measuring such “Booster Breaks” in five worksites across either six months or a year, the same study found that the physical activity made people less stressed, created greater health awareness, and promoted positive behavior change.
So yeah, even 15 minutes of exercise is enough to make a difference. Here are some ideas on how to take breaks that make you move.
Get your HIIT on
HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is where you go as hard as you possibly can at a set of exercises—but only for short bursts. The beauty of HIIT is that you can get maximum benefits in a short time, which makes it perfect for squeezing into a work break. Try downloading a HIIT fitness app so you have routines on hand to follow.
Go for a walk
Remember how science suggests that walking is good for creativity? Try going for a stroll next time you’re stuck on a problem or right before you head into a brainstorming session that requires creativity.
Another option is to go for regular five-minute walks throughout your workday. One study found that lots of short walks had a more positive effect on mood, energy, and appetite as compared to one longer (30-minute) walk. If you’re a fan of the Pomodoro Technique (remember: tomatoes), this is ideal: Simply use your short breaks to get up, stroll around, and come back. You’ll feel better for it.
Do some yoga
Yoga is movement for the body and meditation for the mind—all at the same time. There are so many studies out there about how yoga can decrease stress, beat back anxiety, reduce inflammation…the list goes on. So you know what we’re getting at here. Unroll that yoga mat during your break and get going.
And p.s., you don’t have to be a certified yogi to get benefits. Head to a group class if you have time, or simply find a bit of space and try some beginner yoga poses or gentle stretches.
2. Take a break in nature
Another way to take breaks up a notch? Take them outdoors.
There are so many reasons why getting out into nature is good for you; we don’t even know where to begin. The fresh air, the calming effect, the scientifically-proven benefits. Take, for example, walking in nature versus walking through the city. The urban environment is filled with stimuli and distraction, while the natural environment is calming and restorative and can actually improve your memory, attention, and cognition.
Here are some key ways to take a nature break.
Get double benefits by exercising outside
Research shows that exercising in nature is not only better at decreasing stress and increasing well-being but is also more enjoyable than working out indoors. One study even suggests that the color green makes exercise feel easier. So whether it’s yoga, walking, or hardcore boot camp, try to take your exercise breaks outdoors—especially somewhere green like your local park.
Sit among some flowers
If you can find a flower garden in bloom, spend your break sitting or walking peacefully through it. Flowers have been linked to positive emotions, while studies suggest that some floral scents—like rose—may have a calming effect and can help relieve stress. It turns out that we should stop and smell the roses. Literally.
(We need more research in this area though, so don’t go mixing correlation with causation here.)
Go for a forest walk
If you’re lucky enough to have a forest nearby, go there: It’s another perfect place to take breaks that benefit you. A study from Japan found that shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, had a positive effect on mood and stress levels.
To practice shinrin-yoku, simply spend time beneath the trees, opening up your senses and breathing in the air. Since we (sadly) don’t all have access to ancient Japanese pine forests, try it at a park or anywhere else you can find some trees.
3. Take a meditation break
Sometimes what you really need from a work break is to rest your mind. Maybe you want to feel less anxious or clear some mental space to better solve a problem. Or maybe you just want to gradually improve your mental well-being and ability to focus.
Might we suggest some meditation? (You know we’re all for it.) Here are some ideas for how to take a meditation break.
Meditate without leaving your desk
All you really need for meditation is a comfortable, quiet space. If you’re short on time, or just want to take a quick minute to still your mind mid-workday, get comfortable at your workspace and settle into a short meditation session.
If you find it difficult to zone out, one option is to use a meditation app. They’ll guide you through and often have specific situations covered (like guided tracks for stress, productivity, confidence, gratitude, or whatever else you need at that moment).
We said it above and we’ll say it again: Any kind of break activity is even better if you do it in a natural setting. So if you have time on your break, go out and find a peaceful place where you can find your (mental) peaceful place. Gardens, parks, forests—the greener the better.
Do you have to be sitting cross-legged and Zen-like in order to meditate? It might help some people, but it’s not mandatory. You can use other moments to take breaks for your brain, either by following a guided meditation that’s designed for on-the-go or by simply taking advantage of whatever time you have to relax and focus on your breath. In fact, you can make any moment a mindful moment, whether you’re walking, sitting in a taxi, or standing in a line to buy coffee. These are opportunities to create small acts of mindfulness that add up over the course of your day.
Mix it up
There are no hard-and-fast rules for when to take breaks and how many you need. That said, mixing up your work breaks to include different activities gives you access to a wider range of benefits.
So you might make it a habit to schedule in a workout on your lunch break every day but also spontaneously go for some meditation sessions in the park when your stress levels start to rise. Or you might take a short walk after every 90-minute block of work throughout the day, and so on.
If you tend to skip breaks, use a calendar or alarm to remind you. But leave a little flexibility here—stress can’t always be scheduled. Routine is important, but so is knowing when to break from it in order to do what’s best for your well-being.
Your turn: How do you take breaks that benefit you and your work? And what do you think you could do to make them even better? Let us know in the comments.
For more ways to get the most out of your workdays, read up on music and productivity.
Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.