How to take better breaks at work

We’ve all heard how important it is to take breaks at work. We can only sit in front of a computer for so long before our attention wanes and even the simplest tasks start to take, seemingly, forever. There’s a ton of research out there about the optimal amount of time we should work between taking breaks. We talk about it constantly. And yet, aside from lunch, how often do you actually take a real break during your workday?

I constantly take breaks throughout the day, but I have to admit, they usually involve staring at my Twitter feed for a while, and when I go back to work, I don’t feel like I truly took a break or refreshed my brain. It’s not a break so much as a prolonged distraction. And so, it feels like a waste of time, and I feel guilty for taking time away from my work. Because when you’re not taking a “true” break, it is a waste of time.

When you don’t let yourself take a true break from work, it becomes a waste of time.

The science of taking breaks at work

The benefits of breaks have been well studied. Researchers at University of Illinois found that regular goal-deactivation (i.e., a break where you aren’t thinking about work) drastically improves focus. When we allow our minds to wander, activity increases in the problem-solving areas of our brain and we improve our creative thinking, which is why we so often have great ideas in the shower.

Despite all of the benefits, I usually feel guilty when I take a break. And that’s a problem. We need to reframe the way we think about rest. Idleness is not a bad thing, in fact, it’s vital to our daily mental processing. As Tim Kreider writes in the New York Times: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice… It is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Our brains need downtime. They crave it. And I know that I am guilty of depriving my brain of that downtime. It’s masochistic in a way, for me. I know that my brain needs time to rest, to wander, to not look at a screen. But I’ve almost become afraid of my own thoughts, of what would happen if I gave my brain some time off. So I check Twitter, and Instagram, and Snapchat, and Facebook. I read thinkpiece articles about how my city is changing and then swear to never read a thinkpiece article again. I message friends. I do anything, literally anything, but sit and allow my brain to wander and rest.

In a world where we’re always busy, where our social media apps are calling to us every time we step outside or go to the bathroom or have thirty seconds of free time, how do we take truly productive breaks at work—breaks that rejuvenate our focus, energy, and motivation? What do these breaks look like?

Creative ways to take “better” breaks

In a study at Baylor University, researchers found that what determined a “better” break was not the activity itself, but the level of enjoyment the person felt. In other words, there’s no one right answer. The best type of break is the one that you like the most. Here are some ideas to try.

Look at cute pictures

Yes! This is real. A 2012 study found that after looking at cute pictures of kittens and puppies, people performed better on a variety of tasks that required focused attention. Looking at cute pictures produces nurturant love, a feeling that we need to protect these cute little animals, and it tells our brain to be more alert and aware. Basically, it’s an evolutionary trait. What a world we live in, eh? So the next time your attention starts to wane, look at some pictures of puppies, or your kids, or anything you find cute, and see if it helps jumpstart your focus.

Draw or doodle

Doodling has been shown to be a powerful thinking tool, a way to help our brain process incoming information, and a way to relax. While many people doodle in meetings, on calls, or during lectures to help them pay attention, it’s also a useful break. The great thing about a doodle or simple drawing is that it requires no thinking, allowing your mind to wander, daydream, and be idle—opening it up to the benefits of idleness.

Read fiction

This is one of my favorite types of breaks, but only if done right. I don’t mean read an article or a non-fiction book. I’m talking about fiction—about escaping the real world to a land that lives in your imagination. Novels have always been my favorite way to escape reality. When reading a great book, it’s difficult to think about anything else.

A great book has the power to overwhelm your mind and uplift your imagination, letting you live, even for just a few minutes, in a world where none of your problems are real, where in fact, you are not real. There are few other activities that let you escape in that way, as completely and thoroughly as reading fiction. You could argue that a movie will do the same, and it can, but with reading, it’s up to you to visualize the world. That extra cognitive effort required is what allows me to truly escape. And when I put down the book, I come back to Earth refreshed—because I didn’t just take a break from work. I took a break from me.

Write or journal

This is, in my opinion, the ultimate tool for when I’m feeling completely overwhelmed. The fact that a journal is not meant for anyone else is incredibly freeing. I think of it as a quiet place where I can process my thoughts and feelings.

It’s cathartic, writing stuff out that can’t be said elsewhere. And in the process I often am able to work through things—I ask myself questions, and surprise myself with answers that I hadn’t found before. As Teresa Amabile points out in The Progress Principle, daily journaling shows us that we are making progress in life—a powerful productivity tool.

Traditional types of breaks are great, too

Take a nap

Napping is often sold as the cure for those mid-day slumps. The best part? Even a ten minute nap can have a huge effect on memory, creativity, alertness, and the ability to absorb new information. If you’re a napper, this study goes more in depth about the benefits of varying lengths of naps.

Get moving

Exercise is my personal favorite. Something about a brief workout and a shower recharges me and gets me ready to face the remainder of my day. The benefits of exercise affect nearly every aspect of our lives. A study in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that exercising during the workday had a positive effect on mood and job satisfaction. Another study found that exercise has a positive effect on cognition, reaction time, creative thinking, memory, and task switching, just to name a few. In short, if you’re having a problem, any problem, give exercising a shot. It’ll probably help.

Idleness: the ultimate productivity hack

These days I often feel overwhelmed with the amount of work on my plate, and it’s hard to take a break without feeling guilty for doing so. I push myself to continue to work even though I know it’s unproductive. This is common, I know. But the evidence for the benefits of rest is clear, and so I’m working on reframing the way I think about them. Idleness is not laziness. It’s productive.

The type of break you take doesn’t matter. The best answer varies from person to person. What matters is how the break makes you feel. Try out some of these breaks the next time your attention starts to wane at work. When you’re done, ask yourself, do I feel more focused, energized, and motivated? If yes, you’re on the right track. If not, it’s time to experiment. Don’t feel confined to certain types of activities, and don’t be afraid to step away from your desk for a while. When you get back, you’ll feel more refreshed (and more productive) than if you never left.

Not quite ready to get back to work? Take a few extra minutes to share this article with a teammate.

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