How to take effective breaks (and be more productive)
Deep work. Focus. Flow.
They are all essential for productivity, but many of us have the wrong idea about them. We don't take enough effective breaks.
We think we should focus on a single task for hours at a time.
That idea is outdated.
Few of us are able to focus for even 1 hour without any interruptions, from others or ourselves.
While training our focus and lengthening our attention span is an important and useful daily practice, it's foolish to expect ourselves to work 1, 2, or 4 hours at a time, totally focused. Our mind has its limits.
We aren't computers. We can't go at full speed 24/7. We're humans and we need breaks.
If we want to perform at a high level consistently, breaks are necessary. Elite athletes don't train all day long without rest. They focus on recovery nearly as much as at their actual performance.
According to DeskTime, an app tracking people’s activity on their computer, the top 10 % most productive people work on average for 52 minutes and then take a break for 17 minutes.
So let's take a look at how we can use good breaks to improve our mental performance.
What is an effective break (and what is not)?
We'll start with bad breaks—breaks that make you feel worse or lead to unproductive states of mind.
- Social media use (without effective boundaries in place).
- Reading news articles
- Watching YouTube, Netflix, Twitch,...
- Eating junk food
- Browsing shopping sites aimlessly
If you try to fit these activities into your work day as a break, they often derail it.
You know how your mind feels after checking social media for a while—scattered, unfocused, foggy. That doesn't help your productivity. The worst case scenario is that you go down a rabbit hole and waste the rest of the day.
Avoid highly stimulating, addictive activities during your breaks.
Avoid low effort, high dopamine activities like checking social media or playing Candy Crush.
Instead, choose break activities that give your mind a chance to relax.
What's a good and effective break?
Here are some ideas for you!
- Brew coffee or tea.
- Do a breathing exercise or meditate.
- Stare out of a window.
- Read a page of a book or a blog post.
This can be a good substitute for social media checking.
- Tidy up a part of your room.
- Lie down with your eyes closed or nap.
- Stand up and stretch.
- Take a short walk.
(Studies say that taking a walk through nature boosts your ability to concentrate by as much as 20 % and at the same time reduces your stress levels.)
- Have a chat with a roommate or a colleague.
- Call someone.
- Do a quick workout.
- Take a nap.
- Take a shower.
- Eat a healthy snack.
All of these activities let your mind switch from concentration to relaxation.
Whichever activity you choose, do something that doesn't stimulate the same part of the brain you're using for work.
When you let your mind wander more often, you can stumble upon new insights that wouldn't occur to you in the heads-down work mode. Many creative people report they have their best ideas in a shower, in a bath, or while doing menial work.
In fact, one of the best break options is to not use your brain at all for a moment—by taking a nap.
Nap your way to increased productivity
Napping is an awesome skill to develop.
Many people say they don’t like napping or sleeping during the day in general. They complain they wake up tired every time.
That happens because they make a fatal napping mistake – they sleep too long.
According to research, it’s ideal to sleep for 10–20 minutes when napping. That way, we wake up with new energy without feeling tired.
Even people who sleep all night can enjoy the positive effects of power naps on mood, alertness and mental performance (studying, work).
How to take a power nap:
- Find a place that is as quiet and dark as possible
- Set a timer on your phone for 25 minutes (it takes a few minutes for you to fall asleep)
- Lay down and relax (don’t tell yourself you have to fall asleep, that way you won’t, maybe try slowing down your breath)
- Wake up refreshed!
This is how you take a power nap. And also an effective break.
How to make your nap even better? Drink a coffee beforehand.
Sounds weird? Well, it takes about 25 minutes for caffeine to start working. When we take a shot of espresso before a nap, we not only wake up naturally refreshed, but also feel awake because of caffeine entering our bloodstream. This is calleda nappuccino. Try it out!
Frequent breaks are a part of great performance.
It doesn’t matter if a break is a quick exercise with a barbell, cooking lunch, or just looking out of a window and sipping tea, it’s important to let the minder wander for a while.
If you want to focus, intensely and frequently, you also need to relax frequently.
So, is now a good time to take a short break?