Effective Breaks and Productivity
Taking breaks at work can be tricky. You're on a roll and the ideas are coming thick and fast. You skip morning coffee with a colleague and lunch is all but forgotten. You’re pressing on through. After all, the quicker you get finished, the sooner you can get home and relax. Right?
If this sounds familiar, then you’re not alone. Taking breaks at work isn’t usually at the top of our list of priorities. Research suggests that up to 82% of workers frequently skip breaks whether they’re in the office or working remotely.
Unfortunately, these missed breaks actually have a detrimental effect on our performance and impact our physical and mental well-being. Scientists agree that frequent breaks allow us to reset the mind, refocus, and ultimately improve our productivity.
Here, we look at reasons workers avoid taking breaks at work, why they’re important, and how you can get the most out of your scheduled breaks to improve your overall well-being and perform to the best of your abilities.
Why We Skip Breaks at Work
Everyone’s different but when it comes to skipping breaks at work, many of us cite similar reasons.
If I skip breaks, I can get home earlier
By skipping breaks, you probably think you’ll get things done quicker. The reality is that both the mind and body tire as the working day goes on and there’s only so long you can retain focus before your attention drifts.
Skipping breaks leads to excessive tiredness and fatigue. Not giving your body time to recover will slow your work rate, meaning you’ll take longer to get the job finished.
Everyone else is skipping lunch
Guilt has a lot to answer for when it comes to skipping breaks. When you look around the office and see colleagues eating at their desks or looking hard at work, it makes you less likely to step away from your own desk and take a proper break.
I have too much work to do
Work pressures often mean deadlines and a seemingly endless stream of items on our to-do lists. It’s easy to see how plowing on through lunch could help us get everything finished. Under pressure, we lose sight of what’s really important to our performance and forget to focus on the best practices for achieving our goals.
The Benefits of Taking Breaks at Work
Instead of coming up with excuses to avoid taking breaks at work, we should consider the positive impact breaks can have on the quality of our work and our mental health.
When all your attention is on work, the brain works hard to focus solely on the task at hand, using up valuable energy with the effort. A tired brain eventually begins to have a negative effect on concentration, logical thinking, and focus, impacting your ability to perform the task to the best of your abilities.
Breaks divert your attention away from work giving your brain a chance to refresh itself, helping you regain focus so you return to work with a renewed vigor, improving the quality of your work and the amount you can achieve.
Improves mental health
Taking regular breaks throughout the day to relax, re-energize, and detach yourself from work, even for just a few minutes at a time, helps reduce stress and fatigue, doing wonders for mental health.
The occasional stand-and-stretch or stair climb helps lessen the amount of time our body and mind need to recover at the end of a working day. A quicker recovery time improves the work-life balance, giving us free time to pursue outside interests, exercise, or take part in social activities — all excellent ways to improve our mental well-being.
Increases job satisfaction
We can’t all be in a job we love, but we can be satisfied with the job we have. A survey by the workplace hygiene company Tork suggests that job satisfaction significantly increases when employees are able to take their daily lunch break.
It found that 94% of employees feel happier when they take a lunch break and 9 out of 10 workers said they’d be more inclined to remain at a company where bosses encouraged them to take breaks
Restores focus and attention
We all have a natural cycle of alertness that only allows us to concentrate for a maximum of 90 minutes. After this, our attention begins to wane and we need a break of around 15 minutes to give ourselves time to restore focus and turn our attention back to the job at hand.
The majority of participants in the Tork survey agree, saying that breaks give them the time and opportunity to gain a new perspective on their work.
Prevents decision fatigue
From what to wear and what to eat for breakfast to which graph to include in an important presentation and who to assign a task to, we continually make decisions throughout the day.
After making a large number of decisions, however trivial, we eventually begin to suffer from decision fatigue. Our brain tires and we struggle to make the right choices affecting our decision-making ability.
Taking regular breaks from work allows your mind to rest and rejuvenate to stave off decision fatigue.
Complex problems and tasks often require creative solutions and, when intently focused on one particular thing, it can be tempting to work through your break until you find the solution. However, taking a break is exactly what you need.
Pulling yourself away stops your brain from fixating on the task at hand and allows you to look at the problem in a different way by letting the creative juices flow.
Consolidates memories and improves learning
It’s true that “practice makes perfect.” But, taking breaks while working or studying can actually improve the way we absorb information and learn new skills. Having rest periods between practice sessions allows us to consolidate the memories, sorting through and reiterating the skills we’ve learned before putting them into practice.
Top Tips for Taking Breaks at Work
The key to taking breaks is knowing when to take them, how long to break for, and what to do with the time.
So, here are our top tips for how to make your breaks at work as effective as possible.
Breaks needn’t be long to be effective
A break away from the desk doesn’t have to be for a long period of time. Even a micro-break, when your mind is totally focused on something else for just a few seconds, can help refocus the mind, give you renewed energy, and improve your productivity.
Try incorporating micro, short, and long breaks into your day. Everyone is different and you may need to experiment with different break lengths at different times of the day to find the schedule that works best for you and your needs.
Structure your day
Creating a clear structure for your working day and setting alarms and alerts should ensure you never miss your scheduled break.
The Pomodoro Technique has long been heralded as an easy way to manage your time and organize your day. It’s a technique that’s come a long way since its inception. These days, timers and workspace organizers let you customize settings so you can set the length of each break and structure your day around when you’re at your most productive, ensuring you use your time as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Coordinate breaks with colleagues
If you work in an office, try coordinating your breaks with a coworker. This can be beneficial to you both. If you’re totally focused on a task when break time comes around, your colleague can remind you to step away from your desk and vice versa.
Find different ways to give yourself a break
Finding an activity to do during each break can help distract the mind fully from work. Some activities, such as scrolling through social media or checking emails, are easy to do but aren’t effective at refocusing the mind and giving yourself a total break. Instead, find different ways to get the most out of your downtime.
Daydreaming can be a great way to spend a break at work, but it needs to be the right kind of daydreaming. Your brain is constantly working so even when we think we’re “zoned out”, the reality is much different.
Positive constructive daydreaming allows the mind to wander in a more structured way, helping energize the brain and stimulate creativity. Not only is this great for our productivity, it's also great for our mental health.
Talking with co-workers
Gossiping around the water cooler may seem like a waste of time and simply a form of procrastination. However, there’s much to be said for taking some time to idly chat with colleagues.
Plants have a positive effect on the workplace, helping to brighten the environment, absorb background noise, and filter out certain toxins from the air.
Take your time out to keep the plants healthy by watering them. This kind of low-key activity can also be combined with positive constructive daydreaming to improve creativity.
Exercising is beneficial for our overall health and also great for productivity, making it the ideal activity to incorporate into breaks. Hitting the gym at lunchtime is a perfect way to boost energy levels and totally distract yourself from work.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean an hour’s workout. You can still reap the benefits during a brisk walk in the fresh air for 10 minutes, walking up and down the stairs, or even standing up and stretching for a few seconds. Movement increases blood flow to the brain, reduces tension, improves our mood, and helps clear the mind.
Breathing and meditation exercises
When we’re feeling stressed, meditation and deep breathing exercises can help relieve tension. Practicing intentional breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic or yogic breathing, can help reduce anxiety and stress, improve memory, and restore energy levels.
Whether you spend one or 15 minutes focusing on your breathing, your mind and body will be ready to face any problem with renewed enthusiasm.
Have a coffee
Experts continually warn us about how too much caffeine can be bad for our health. But, not much is said about the positive effects of low to moderate levels of caffeine on our cognitive abilities.
We’re not suggesting you spend all day drinking coffee. Everything needs to be taken in moderation so please don’t exceed your recommended caffeine intake. But, drinking a cup of coffee can help improve your alertness, focus, reaction time, and even your memory in the short term. So, put the kettle on and enjoy a coffee while taking your well-earned break.
It’s easy to lose track of time or feel you’ve got too much on your plate and can’t afford to take a break from work. In reality, you’re doing yourself — and your productivity — no good at all. As we’ve shown, science urges us to take breaks in order to perform at our best.
So, whether it’s a 5-minute chat with a friend, a 10-minute walk around the block, or a daydream while watering the plants, taking breaks throughout the day is as important as the work you actually do.