How taking a break can make you happier and more productive

Simply taking a short break can be invigorating, both mentally and physically.

What’s so bad about working all day?

Imagine that you’ve just been exercising and you’re completely exhausted. Perhaps you were lifting weights and you can barely lift your arms up. This is natural, your body is tired after you pushed it to the limit, it’s obvious that you need to take a break before you do any more exercise. Pushing yourself too hard will only cause injuries, the pain you feel is your body telling you to stop. This is also why exercises are typically broken down into sets and reps, it’s safer and more effective to break the work down into manageable chunks. While the signs of exhaustion may be different, exercising your brain at your job will strain it in the same way that lifting weights will strain your arms.

The misconception of being at your desk

In most office environments it is typically assumed that if you are at your desk, then you are doing your job. Consider that looking like you’re working is not the same as actually working. Just because you’re at your desk doesn’t mean you’re doing anything meaningful. Even if you’re trying to work, at some point you’ll start to get distracted and your productivity will wane as the day goes on. Imagine sprinting at the start of a marathon and using up most of your energy, then crawling for the rest of the race. Technically you are still in the race while crawling, in the same way that you’re still technically working while peaking at Twitter every few minutes.

Employees are often afraid of being seen by their managers as slacking off, wasting company time. According to a survey conducted by Staples of their office workers and managers, 55 percent don’t feel they can leave their desk to take a break. Obviously if we as humans could stay 100 percent focused for eight hours a day, five days a week, that would be optimal. But that is simply not physically possible, there is no person on earth that is capable of that feat. As such, taking the necessary breaks throughout the day to stay focused is critical for an efficient work day.

While getting up from your desk frequently might look like you’re taking breaks to avoid doing work, in reality those breaks are the proof that you’re giving your job a concerted effort. Depending on where you work and how strictly you are being monitored, you may be worried about getting reprimanded for being away from your desk for too long. If that is the case, you should try speaking with your manager and see if they would be willing to let you take more breaks. You will need to convince your manager that this isn’t a ploy to slack off, it will actually result in you getting more work done, not less. In fact, you’ll probably get distracted less frequently in the middle of work and as a result will be more productive. Your manager should realize that working to the point of exhaustion and seeing your productivity drop isn’t good either. If they aren’t willing to let you take the breaks you need to avoid burning out, then it might be time to start looking for a new job.

When should you take a break?

When doing physical exercise it’s clear when you need to stop, but mental exhaustion might not be as obvious to you. Generally if you find yourself checking Twitter, Reddit, news sites, Facebook, etc. then you need to take a break. Ideally you should be aiming to catch yourself before you become so distracted that you’ve ceased to be productive. There’s a big difference between getting distracted while working, and taking a conscious break from your work. You may even do the same thing on your break that you do when you’re distracted (check Twitter for example), but the difference is that you actively chose to take a break. That way there’s a clear separation between your break time and work time, giving your mind a chance to relax. You can really only focus on one thing, to have an effective break you need to distance yourself from your work, physically and mentally.

Let’s take a walk

There are many different things you can do while on your break, such as chatting at the water cooler or working on a crossword puzzle. But, one of if not the best ways to take an effective break is to get up and go for a short walk. The benefits of walking may surprise you, improving both your phsyical and mental health. Being away from your desk you won’t feel like you need to be working, instead of splitting your focus between work and your break, making both ineffective. Walking will take you away from your desk and allow you to think about something else.

Although the idea is to take a break from work, you might be working on an interesting problem that you’re excited about. Stepping away from your problems gives your mind a chance to process the information in a subconscious way, leading to new ideas and sometimes the solution you were searching for. This can save you from spinning your wheels, getting stuck and ultimately frustrated.

Going for a quiet walk alone can really help you relax, reduce your stress and give you some time to think. Convincing your coworkers to join you on your walk can be great too, especially during the lunch hour since your regular breaks throughout the day probably won’t line up. It’s common that people don’t talk to each other much despite being in the same office for months or even years. One casual stroll with your coworker might lead to a conversation longer than all your previous interactions with them combined. Making friends and connecting with people in your office has many benefits, including increased productivity and happiness.

As an employee it’s fun to socialize with your coworkers, but managers need to realize that cultivating an environment where employees feel that they can make those connections is critical. Some employees might take the initiative to organize ways to socialize, but guaranteeing that employees are happy and facilitating events and policies to ensure it is the responsibility of the company.

Happy employees are productive employees

As noted in the report produced by Staples, job-related stress is costing companies hundreds of billions of dollars each year. They also point out that these costs can be reduced with regular work breaks. While most employees probably don’t care too much about saving their employers money, it’s important to realize that there needs to be an incentive to make changes. By showing that happier employees will reduce costs, it can encourage managers to allow their employees to take the breaks they need.

However, simply allowing employees to take breaks is not enough. I had highly recommended going out for a walk on your break, but not everyone will want to do that. As such, people need appropriate facilities to relax inside the office. This will vary from place to place, but the benefits from having happy employees will far outweigh whatever the cost might be for installing the necessary amenities.

The Pomodoro Technique

As I mentioned previously, determining when to take a break can be difficult. There have been a variety of techniques and strategies developed to help with this, one that I have found particularly helpful is called The Pomodoro Technique. To put it simply, this technique is a guideline to help you manage your time and breaks effectively. The goal is to work for a set period of time, take a short break, repeat this a few times, and then take a longer break. Typically you will work for twenty-five minutes and then take a five minute break. You shouldn’t worry too much about that though, it varies from person to person, you’ll just have to experiment until you find what works best for you. It might seem counterintuitive that spending less time working will actually result in getting more done, but after trying it for a few weeks your productivity might surprise you.

Of course this technique is not suitable for everyone and every work environment. There are many other techniques you can try if you find The Pomodoro Technique isn’t working for you. For example, staying hydrated is important for your health, so some people like to get a very small bottle or cup to drink from. That way they need to get up periodically to refill it, forcing them to stand up and take a break. You may have to try a few different things before you find what works for you, or come up with your own solution that best suits your own needs. Just try to keep in mind that you should be taking breaks regularly.

Final thoughts

Whether you start managing your breaks with The Pomodoro Technique, or simply take a few more trips to the water cooler, I hope you have a better understanding of why taking a break is important. If incorporating such a big change into your routine like The Pomodoro Technique seems daunting, what you can do is set yourself a reminder for a few weeks from now to look into it again. To start you can experiment with adding a few extra breaks to your day, maybe try going for a short stroll.

While taking breaks is helpful, there’s still a limit to how long you should work for. Just like at the gym, there’s only so many sets you can do before you’re done for the day. There isn’t a clear answer to what the most optimal work week is, or if it should even be a week. There has been a move towards a six hour work week in some countries, while others are trying out three or four day work weeks. What is clear is that the typical work week most companies have has lots of room for improvement.

Keep in mind that everyone is different, what may work for others may not work for you. It’s really all about finding the balance that makes you happy and productive.

Further reading:

The Science of Taking Breaks at Work

Why Taking Breaks Is The Key To Productivity

Pierce Zaifman

Android app developer. Hates wasting time and takes satisfaction in improving efficiency in all aspects of life. Also enjoys helping people solve their problems.

London, Ontario, Canada

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