7 Strategies to maximize a break
"Because too many of us try to power through the day in the name of productivity"
without losing focus or burning out.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 51 seconds. Contains 1372 words
ELLEN HENDRIKSEN is a clinical psychologist who helps millions be their authentic selves through her award-winning podcast, which has been downloaded over 5 million times, and in her clinic at Boston University’s Center. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Quiet Revolution, and many other media outlets. The Savvy Psychologist was picked as a Best New Podcast of 2014 on iTunes and was Otto Radio’s Best Healthcare Podcast of 2016. Dr. Hendriksen earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. She lives in the Boston area with her family.
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Too many of us try to power through the day in the name of productivity. We skip lunch but then burn out by 3:00pm. Or we reward a productive stretch with a “quick break” that morphs into a two-hour social media sinkhole.
Dr. Ellen Hendriksen helps us maximize our breaks and recharge without losing momentum.
Everybody needs a break. Two great inventions that speak to that need are the weekend and the vacation, both of which have a distinct beginning and end. But a break in the middle of the workday is a more elusive challenge. Deadlines, demanding bosses, guilt, and sheer workload often make us power through. We eat lunch while catching up on email and consider a walk to the bathroom a luxury.
On the other hand, even if we value and prioritize breaks, sometimes they go off the rails, unintentionally shape-shifting into a momentum-killing two-hour rabbit hole of online shopping, one more round of Snake vs Block, or BuzzFeed quizzes.
Either way, stopping to stare out the window or wander the halls at work may seem lazy, guilt-inducing, willpower-taxing, or logistically impossible. However, done right, breaks can boost focus, recharge your batteries, and make you more productive, not to mention happier. How to do it right? This week, here are 7 ways to make those few minutes really count.
“Taking any break, whether it’s quiet or loud, mindless or mindful, is better than nothing.”
Tip #1: Any Break Is Better Than No Break
For anyone who’s so overscheduled that lunch consists of wolfing down a protein bar in a bathroom stall, let’s make clear that taking a break—any break—is better than powering through.
A study in Applied Cognitive Psychology ran a head-to-head comparison of five different kinds of breaks. Everyone was asked to focus on a task that required sustained attention for 45 minutes. In the middle, participants took a 5-minute break to play on their phone, sit in silence, listen to a Coldplay song, watch a Coldplay video (apparently even researchers crush on Chris Martin), or choose between the song and the video. Compared to the group that took no break at all, performance was better in every single one of the break conditions.
Tip #2: Make Your Break Different Than Your Work
Everyone has a coworker whose cologne makes the eyes water. But even though you can smell the Drakkar Noir before he enters the conference room, he has no idea. Why?
A trick of the brain called habituation. Just like folks who live next to busy streets stop hearing the traffic, or when we decide to tune out notifications because our phone pings all day long, we do tend to screen out sustained stimuli.
Researchers from the University of Illinois hypothesize that even when we’re actively attending to stimuli, like a work project or other tasks they dub cognitive goals, we habituate as time goes by, making task-unrelated thoughts (aka distractions) more active.
Therefore, the researchers proposed that “deactivating a cognitive goal”—in other words, taking a break—can keep habituation from occurring. After the break, the goal is reactivated.
Therefore, for your break, do something 180 degrees different than what you were doing. For those of us who stare at a screen all day, that rules out taking a break by staring at your phone. Instead, doing something physical like a few jumping jacks, going for a walk to pick up lunch at the Thai place down the street, or strolling across the building to rehash The Bachelor with Jasmine from HR will benefit you more than playing Love Balls on your phone, though again, Love Balls is better than no break at all.
Tip #3: But Take Breaks That Keep You in a Work Mindset
We’ve talked about productive procrastination before, like unloading the dishwasher, getting your Instacart shopping done, or catching up on that nonfiction book you’ve been meaning to read. It feels like you’re getting something done, even if it’s not the big thing with the looming deadline you’re supposed to be working on.
Productive procrastination may be full of pitfalls, but the very same types of tasks—productive but easy like sorting the mail or searching online for plane tickets—can be perfect for taking a break. Productive tasks that don’t require much brainpower but still provide contrast to your work can downshift your gears without taking you out of a work mindset.
In Tip #2 we talked about making your break contrast with your work, but an activity that contrasts with your work ethic virtually guarantees you’ll still be watching Honest Trailers on YouTube 45 minutes later. Therefore, test out breaks that don’t break your productivity momentum—walk across the hall to chat with your coworker about a project, reschedule your dentist appointment, or if you work from home, throw a load of laundry into the machine.
Tip #4: Take a Microbreak
A break doesn’t have to be elaborate or lengthy. Especially if you’re trying not to break momentum, an under-a-minute microbreak might be just what you need.
The bonus? They can be effective. Researchers from the University of Melbourne asked participants to complete a tedious task that required close attention—specifically, pressing a computer key when any numerical digit except ‘3’ appeared on their computer screen. In the middle of the task, half the participants were shown a picture of a building with a bare concrete roof for just 40 seconds, while the other half were shown a picture of a flowering green roof for 40 seconds.
Those who saw the green roof made significantly fewer mistakes on their subsequent task, providing a shout-out for both microbreaks and for green city roofs. Even under a minute of staring out the window, it turns out, can be good for your productivity.
“Many of us focus better in the morning, so extend your peak productivity by taking break around 10 or 11.”
Tip #5: Trade the Midafternoon Slump for a Morning Break
Most of us head for Starbucks or catch up on Colbert monologues during the 3:00pm midafternoon slump, but a study out of the Journal of Applied Psychology found that a break in the morning was more productive. Why? Essentially, by 3:00pm, it’s too late. You’re already drained and only good for brainless administrative tasks or cleaning out your email inbox. But in the morning, you can still regain your 9:00am levels of focus after a rejuvenating break. Many of us focus better in the morning, so extend your peak productivity by taking break around 10 or 11.
Tip #6: Don’t Break Flow
As great as breaks are, you don’t need to follow your Pomodoro timer slavishly. If your work seems to be doing itself, your ideas are flowing as fast as your adrenaline, or if you’re so absorbed you’ve lost track of time, rock on! Don’t take a break just because you think you “should.”
Tip #7: But When It’s Time to Rest, Rest Like You Mean It
After your work is over, rest like you mean it. If your work week keeps you tethered to your email, dare to leave it behind on the weekend, or at least until Sunday night. Use evenings and weekends to put away your to-do list, do activities that take you out and away from work completely, and see friends and family.
Here’s another way to think about it: Be inspired by your cat or dog—when they rest, they rest full-on. They don’t check Twitter or think about Monday morning. They find a sunny spot and rest like it’s the only thing on the agenda. Because it is.
To wrap it all up, rather than stressing over what kind of break to take or what interval to follow—the 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off Pomodoro method; the 52 on, 17 off DeskTime method—do what works for your style and circumstances.
“Be comfortable, be confident, be you!”
In short, go ahead and hum the Kit Kat jingle to yourself as you take a walk around the block, gush about The Great British Bake Off with Alan from accounting, stay productive by making a grocery list, or, of course, listen to Coldplay. No matter what you do, you’ll be glad you did.