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7 Science-Backed Ways to Take Better Breaks

Jory MacKay
Jory MacKay / September 25, 2017

It wasn’t until moving to London that I started eating lunch at my desk.

Instead of sitting around a communal table or going out for a leisurely lunch hour, my colleagues would bring microwaved leftovers to their desk or sprint down to the local grocery store to grab a sandwich and chips before plopping back down and resuming their work. There was always too much to be done. Deadlines to hit. Advertisers and investors to appease.

I quit that job, but working in startups and now as a freelancer, the habit unfortunately stuck.

In our always on, 100% hustle, productivity at all costs culture, it’s hard to justify taking a few minutes to yourself during the workday, let alone a full lunch hour. Even a recent Apple ad celebrated entrepreneurs working so hard, they’re not able to see their children.

But this style of working is unsustainable. We physically can’t work at 100% capacity, 100% of the time.

We need breaks. And not just as temporary escapes from the pressures of work. Done properly, breaks can reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function and creativity, and actually keep us on-task for longer periods of time. Ironically, the more time we take off, the more we’re able to work.

So how do you take a proper break? Here are 7 science-backed studies can help you maximize your downtime.

1. Take a Break Every 52 Minutes

50 minute
Just about time to stop for a break...

We’ve all had those moments where time slips away and we’re in the zone for hours on end. But unfortunately, those moments of blissful flow are few and far between. Instead, to get the most out of our workday we need to treat it like a series of small battles, not an all-out war.

Concentration and focus are our ultimate productivity weapons, and need to be protected. Yet they’re constantly under attack and used up resisting the ‘bad’ choices that surround us.

  • You resist the urge to surf the web when you’ve got work to do
  • You resist ordering a burger at lunch
  • You resist checking emails when you’re working on a project

All these moments of resistance add up. And to keep our focus and concentration strong all day long, we need to treat our willpower like the muscle it is.

For years, productivity methods like Pomodoro have suggested that working in a series of short bursts or ‘sprints’ followed by short breaks are the best ways to keep yourself on track. But just how long should these bursts be? While the Pomodoro technique advocates for shorter sprints of 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break (with a longer break after every 4 ‘sessions’), research from the team at DeskTime came up with a different number.

After analyzing 5.5 million daily records of how office workers are using their computer (based on what the user self-identified as ‘productive’ work), they found that the top 10% of productive workers all worked an average of 52 minutes before taking a 17 minute break.

Why does this work? There’s a number of reasons:

  1. By knowing you have a break coming up, you’re more likely to stay focused and work with purpose.
  2. Working for any longer can cause cognitive boredom. Beyond 52 minutes of working your mind starts to wander and can have longer-term negative effects by causing you to be less engaged with the task at hand.
  3. Your body wasn’t meant to sit for 8-hours a day. You’re probably heard that sitting is the new smoking, and while the statement makes for better headlines than fact, it’s true that getting some activity at regular intervals in your day will improve your health and mental focus.

The best part is that this is a basic change to make to your routine. There are tons of tools out there that can help keep you on track from the timer on your phone to apps like Be Focused, which syncs a customizable timer across all your devices.

2. Distract Yourself to Recharge your Focus

The hardest part about taking regular breaks during your workday is that it can be incredibly hard to ‘switch off’. After spending 50+ minutes working intensely on a task, it’s more than natural to continue thinking about it during your break.

But research shows this intense focus actually makes us less focused in the long run.

In a study on attention in the journal Cognition, University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras compared how our brains naturally stop registering sights, sounds, and feelings if they remain consistent for a period of time with how they react to thoughts that remain consistent for long periods of time.

Think about how you don’t really register the feeling of clothing on your body. Or how sounds that kept you awake when you first moved into your home don’t bother you anymore. The body becomes habituated to the feeling and what once grabbed our attention no longer registers in any meaningful way in the brain. The same thing happens to our thoughts.

"If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought's disappearance from our mind," Lleras explains.

Instead of thinking about the problem without stop, we need to create distractions that take our attention away from the task at hand so we can come back at it with a fresh mind.

One way to do this is to overload your cognitive abilities by multi-tasking on your break. It might seem counter-intuitive to add more cognitive strain during a break, but the key here is to force your mind off the work at hand.

The beauty with this research is that you’re free to do whatever you want during your break. Check Facebook, watch puppy videos, play scrabble, call a friend—as long as it doesn’t have to do with the task you’re returning to, it’s fair game.

3. Take in the Great Outdoors

path in the woods
Might be best to stay on the beaten path this time

Staying in an artificially lit, stuffy office, co-working space, or cafe all day might be a necessity for getting things done. But escaping that space for even a few minutes during the day can have huge benefits.

Studies show that just spending time in nature can help alleviate mental fatigue by relaxing and restoring the mind. Additionally, increased exposure to sunlight and fresh air helps increase productivity and can even improve your sleep. In one study, researchers found that workers with more exposure to natural light during the day slept an average of 46 minutes more per night. Taking your break outdoors not only helps you be productive while you’re awake, but helps you sleep through the night, giving you a headstart on the next day.

And what if you can’t get outdoors during your break? If you can’t go to nature, you can always bring nature to you. Simply being around natural elements can have the same effect. Just seeing plants around you can improve morale, increase satisfaction with your work, and make you more patient.

So whether you get outside for a quick stroll or just stare out the window, being close to nature during your break has a whole slew of benefits.

4. Give Your Mind The Right Fuel

One of the most common reasons we take a break is because our body tells us we need to. When your stomach is grumbling louder than the thoughts in your head, you have to do something about it. Unfortunately, choosing the wrong food or beverage can deplete our mental energy rather than restore it.

When you’re hungry, a hormone produced in the stomach called ghrelin signals the neurotransmitter NPY in the brain that your body’s energy levels are low and you need food.

NPY lives in the hypothalamus—the section of your brain that controls fatigue, memory, and emotion—and essentially is always making sure you have enough energy to function. When you’re hungry and your energy level dips, it takes over and reminds you to eat.

Once you do eat, your food is broken down into glucose—fuel for your brain. But unlike your car that doesn’t care as long as the tank isn’t totally empty, your brain works best with a consistent level of glucose in your blood—25 grams, according to University of Roehampton researcher Leigh Gibson.

Now, you can get that 25 grams from a snack bar, banana, or carbs like bread, rice or pasta, but a recent study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that protein not only gives you that quick hit of glucose, but is the only macronutrient to enhance cognitive abilities longer than 15-20 minutes after ingestion.

To keep your brain working at peak performance, opt for a snack on your break that includes a higher level of protein, such as a small serving of chicken, beef, or fish, nuts or nut butter, or a protein supplement.

And remember to keep your portions small to reduce the risks of a post-snack crash. According to a study published in Cell, the brain may react to excess food as if it were a pathogen, with the resulting immune response causing temporary cognitive deficits similar to those associated with Alzheimer’s.

5. Exercise Your Eyes

glasses

Our eyes take the burden of much of our tech-fueled lives. Most of us spend around 6-9 hours a day on a digital device with 28% locking their eyes on one type of screen or another for 10+ hours. Your eyes can begin to feel strain in as little as two hours, which is why taking a vision break during the day is so important.

Luckily, there’s a simple exercise that will help reduce your eye fatigue: 20-20-20.

Every 20 minutes look away from your computer screen and focus on an item at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Easy, right?

Beyond just taking care of your eyes during your breaks, there are a few other simple steps you can take to protect your vision all day long:

  1. Dim your lights: Your computer screen should be the brightest thing in the room. If possible, you want the rest of your lighting to mimic a fire. That means turning off or reducing overhead lights and making sure any desk lamps are setup to give you indirect light.
  2. Reduce glare: When one spot on your screen is brighter than others, your eyes have a hard time adjusting to it which can cause added strain. Try an anti-glare screen cover, clean your screen regularly, and make sure you’re not too close to a window.
  3. Make your workspace more eye friendly: Most of us have our workspace set up all wrong for our eyes. We stare down at a laptop screen or crane our necks up to look at our monitors. Proper ergonomics help reduce fatigue in your entire body but your eyes especially. Check out this site to help find the optimal workspace setup for your eyes.

6. Hit the Gym (Or At Least Go For a Walk)

You might scoff at your co-worker hitting the treadmill on their lunch break, but exercise is one of the easiest ways to reduce fatigue, boost energy, and increase your productivity throughout the day.

Researchers from the University of São Paulo discovered that just 10-minutes of exercise is enough to boost memory and attention performance throughout the day.

To cram in a quick workout on your break try a few rounds of the 7-minute workout or a short routine of pushups, planks, and jumping jacks as a way to see benefits without making a dent in your workday.

If you don’t want to change into workout clothes or risk spending the rest of the day with sweat stains, just going for a simple walk has been shown to refresh memories and increase creativity. In a report from the American Psychology Association, researchers discovered that walking increased 81% of participants’ creativity.

To get an added bonus, hit the block without your phone. A study from Social Psychology discovered that simply having our phone around us can increase anxiety and lower your overall cognitive performance by as much as 20%.

7. Simply Sit and Let Your Mind Wander

rest
You might not even need to do anything

So far we’ve looked at a number of things you can do on your break to replenish your energy. But what about just doing nothing?

We’ve written before about the positive effects of meditation—everything from reducing anxiety and stress to increasing willpower and your ability to focus. However, if a zen routine isn’t your style, there’s another way.

A report published in Science magazine found that simply letting our minds wander by zoning out or daydreaming has similar benefits to meditation. When we stop paying attention to anything, our brain’s Default Mode Network takes over which gives our overworked prefrontal cortex—where complex processes like problem-solving, memory, reason, and logic take place—a well-deserved rest.

Not only that, but taking some time to let your mind drift can help you come up with more novel ideas and uncover hidden answers when you’re back at work.

NYU psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman found that daydreaming is a fantastic way for us to access our unconscious and allow ideas that have been silently incubating to bubble up into our conscious. Meaning that while you think you’re doing nothing, you’re actually mining the depths of your mind for more creative solutions to the problems you’re facing. It’s a win-win.


In our culture of doing, taking regular breaks can be seen as lazy or unproductive. But when done correctly, breaks are actually the ultimate productivity hack, because they let us do more in less time.

So stop glorifying long days and burnout-inducing hours and take a break. You deserve it.

Header photo by Nita via Pexels; Clock photo by Mabel Amber via Pexels; Glasses photo via Pexels; Woods photo by Holmes via Tookapic; break photo rawpixel via Pexels.

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