Pausing your work might seem counterproductive. It’s time you could spend finishing your project. Also, in some companies, being away from your desk can be frowned upon, as if you’re wasting time.

The Science Behind Taking Breaks

Your brain is like a muscle, however, and it requires an incredible amount of energy. Thanks to the circadian rhythm, the cyclical patterns our bodies are hard-wired into for sleep, eating, and thinking, your brain can only focus for so long before it needs a break. Our brains store and use glucose as fuel, and this gets depleted quickly.

Non-stop focus on one thing for hours on end will only leave you drained. Take a well-timed break, however, and your mind will be sharper, more focused, and more energized.

As the New York Times explains, “Although many of us can’t increase the working hours in the day, we can measurably increase our energy. Science supplies a useful way to understand the forces at play here. Physicists understand energy as the capacity to do work. Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable.”

It’s like taking a vacation: You might feel guilty about doing it, but it’s necessary if you want to avoid burnout, work better, and be happier. And hey, that’s good news!

How To Take Better Breaks

The bad news, however, is that reading Facebook or checking your email every five minutes don’t count as productive breaks. Look at it this way, you want to feel restored and re-energized after your breaks, rather than just push your work back.

The best way to take a real break? Unplug at least 15-20 minutes after each 60 to 90 minute work sprint. 60 to 90 minute work sessions make the most sense because that’s how much time your brain can be fueled or taxed on any one activity, Inc. points out, although time-tracking app Desktime found that the most productive people actually spent 52 minutes working followed by a 17-minute break.

You don’t have to be as precise as that, but schedule your work in chunks. Researcher Anders Ericsson found that elite violinists weren’t spending more time practicing the violin–they were engaging in more deliberate practice: 90-minute periods of practice, followed by short breaks. And 20-30 minute naps in the afternoon as well.

Adjust your focus time for how your energy ebbs and flows and the type of work you need to do. Writing, for example, is best done in 90 minute stretches. For researching and reading, however, 25 or 30 minute sprints would be fine.

If you want to get the most out of your break, try one of these suggestions:

  • Take a walk outside, which can reduce stress and boost creativity.
  • Eat lunch or a snack and get hydrated. Fuel your brain’s need for glucose.
  • Take a nap. Depending on how much time you can nap, you can improve your memory, boost alertness, and make up for lost sleep.
  • Try meditating, which is like exercise for your brain.
  • Declutter your desk, since clutter is distracting.


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