It’s a funny world. We created a business culture that makes overwork and stress into badges of honor. We give too much emphasis to persistence and powering through and pulling all-nighters. We don’t give enough to steady and sustainable progress for ourselves or for our companies.
You can reap the benefits of sanity, health, and productivity if you take breaks from work. Everybody agrees with that. How to do it is the question.
Alas, much advice on breaks is too broad. “Take more breaks” is good advice but not very helpful. Other advice is too narrow. “Take a 10-minute break every hour” doesn’t allow for the great variety of people and situations.
For over 50 years, I’ve been working at being both productive and happy. There are plenty of times where I haven’t been either, but I feel like I’m doing better now than I did 50 years ago. Here’s what I’ve learned from my own experience, from reading research, and from observing others.
There’s a natural rhythm to productive and sustainable human activity. At the best of times, we have periods where we work followed by periods where we rest or recover. All work and no breaks make us grumpy, touchy, and less effective.
Peter Pan had it right, “It’s not work unless you’d rather be doing something else.” A break is something different. It’s “something else.”
Breaks While Working
Let’s start with you at work. Maybe you’re in a cubicle farm someplace or maybe you’re a remote worker who’s a member of a distributed team. Maybe you work for yourself like I do.
The same basic rhythm applies. Work then break. If you work, work, work, say going from one Zoom call to another, your stress increases, and your effectiveness decreases. Breaks make it possible to deliver more over the whole day.
Srini Pillay, MD, tells us why in his HBR article, “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus.”
“The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resistance, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.”
So, how long should you work before you take a break? There are two approaches to that.
Some people prefer what’s called the “Pomodoro method.” There, you work intensely for 20 – 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. Other people prefer a “deep work pattern.” We have some research to suggest how that might work best. Consider the following from Derek Thompson writing in the Atlantic.
“Desktime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, peeked into its data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer.”
My experience matches the research. When I work on writing or editing or other high-intensity mental tasks, I usually work for somewhere between 50 minutes and an hour before I need to take a break. I don’t time this. I find that my body and my mental awareness tell me when it’s time to break. Then, I do something else for about 20 minutes.
There’s no such thing as a perfect break. There are only breaks that work for you or don’t. So, experiment. Try different things. Try taking a walk or chatting with coworkers or reading. One client of mine took a break by “dealing with the distractions.”
Breaks In the Day
There are natural breaks that happen in most of our days. Most of us have a lunch break. It will be more potent a break if you don’t take it at your desk. Several people I know eat a light lunch and go for a walk.
Many people use exercise as a major break. I exercise either in the morning or the afternoon depending on the season. After I exercise, I go back to work.
Naps are a great break. A short, 20-minute nap can refresh you. Naps are also an effective break when you’re struggling to solve a problem. I often wake up with the answer.
Walks are a great break. If you can, take your walk nature or at least where you don’t need to worry about traffic. Walks are great for clearing your head and creativity, too.
Work with our natural rhythm of work/effort followed by rest/recovery.
A break is something different.
Experiment to find out what works for you.
All work and no breaks makes us grumpy, touchy, and less effective.
Go for steady and sustainable instead of “powering through.”