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The more breaks you take at work, the more productive you may be, according to science

"Micro-breaks should be no more than 10 minutes."

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@Antonio_Gravante | Twenty20

The more breaks you take at work, the more productive you could be, according to a recent North Carolina State University study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The study specifically examines how micro-breaks, defined as "short, voluntary and impromptu respites in the workday," affect employee burnout. Researchers found that if employees were fatigued upon arriving to work, they tended to take more breaks, and that five-minute breaks helped fatigued employees maintain their energy levels and meet work demands.

During a pandemic, when many workers are remote and isolated, natural opportunities for micro-breaks can be harder to come by, according to Raquel Benbunan-Fich, a professor of information systems at Baruch College who specializes in user behavior and multitasking. So you may need to be more intentional about it and make time.

"In the office, we typically had micro-breaks where we could take a walk to the water cooler and engage in informal conversation with co-workers," she says. "Now, we are sitting in front of a computer all day long. We need to move and we need to clear our heads."

Here's why micro-breaks are good for your mental health as well as your productivity, and how to take breaks and still get a lot done.

'Breaks help you gain some perspective'

Taking a micro-break can help redirect the blood flow from parts of your brain that might feel overworked, says Ines Gramegna, co-founder of Skylyte, a company that equips teams to prevent burnout.

"If you're doing a new or a difficult task, your brain will require a lot of blood flow to certain areas of the brain," she says. Taking a break directs blood to other parts of the brain that aren't being utilized and can help you feel refreshed and less tired.

Taking breaks can also replenish your cognitive resources, says Benbunan-Fich. "Breaks help you gain some perspective and some additional resources or energy in order to continue working," she says.

How to take effective micro-breaks while working from home

If you have a roommate or are living with a family member, you can ask them to be your break buddy. However, for many people working from home, there's probably not much chance a co-worker will stop by to chat or grab coffee, so it can be helpful to make sure you're working regular breaks into your routine.

Most people can work without a pause for about an hour and a half, Gramegna says. If you're working an eight-hour day and taking breaks every 90 minutes, optimally you should take about five breaks per day.

In the office, we typically had micro-breaks where we could take a walk to the water cooler and engage in informal conversation with co-workers. Now we are sitting in front of a computer all day long.
Raquel Benbunan-Fich
professor of information systems at Baruch College

Micro-breaks can be "supershort," Gramegna says. Even taking just a couple minutes to do breathing exercises could replenish your energy. It also helps to have an "anchor" that signals it's time for you to take a break.

"An example of an anchor would be a specific song or specific sound," she says. "It can be any kind of sound that you associate with taking a break. Basically, your mind will create an anchor around a sound that it associates with taking a break."

Anchors don't have to be long or involved, she adds. "You can read the same quote every time you take a break or do a specific posture or movement that signals the beginning of that break."

You can read the same quote every time you take a break or do a specific posture or movement that signals the beginning of that break.
Ines Gramegna
co-founder of Skylyte

Whether you take a walk around the block or listen to music, your break activity should be something totally disconnected from the task you are trying to complete. If your work requires you to be on your laptop all day, try doing something that gets you away from a screen.

"Micro-breaks should be no more than 10 minutes," Benbunan-Fich says. She, however, doesn't believe they should be scheduled. Instead, you should take a micro-break when you come to a natural stopping point in your work, she says.

"The best times to take a break are when you complete a sub-task," meaning you've taken a step towards finishing an assignment, "and need to reenergize yourself," she adds.

"The worst thing that can happen is when you stop in the middle of something when you are in your peak producing," she says. This is sometimes called a state of "hyperfocus," and interrupting it can make you less productive. Instead, take a break when you feel stuck or are too tired to complete the task.

How to tell you need to take a break

If you are working in an office, you can ask a co-worker to hold you accountable to taking breaks every so often. If you are working from home, though, you may have to be more vigilant and and reflective. There are a few signs that it's time for you to take a break, Gramegna says.

  • If you have to reread something because you didn't understand it the first time
  • If you are losing focus or attention when you are talking to someone
  • If you start getting restless or fidgeting in your seat

"These are very clear signs of pending fatigue," she says.

Remember, micro-breaks should be used to replenish your energy, not to avoid doing work, Benbunan-Fich says. "There is a fine line between getting your mojo back versus taking too many micro-breaks that you are producing nothing all day long."

To make micro-breaks work for you, keep them short and ensure you're doing something you find rejuvenating.

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