How long should you work before taking a break? The typical recommendations I see in the blogosphere are (a) every 50-60 minutes and (b) every 90 minutes. My advice: take breaks when you actually need them rather than taking them on schedule.
Be careful with advice given by writers. It may not be wrong, but it may very well be domain-specific. In other words, a clerk in a copy store can probably work two or three times as long as a writer without needing a break. A construction worker may only be able to optimally work half as long. Think about the nature of the work you do and learn to rightsize your breaks accordingly.
An effective break starts with a purpose in mind. Is it rest, recreation, nourishment, completing an errand, or having a conversation? One of the worst practices in taking breaks is to “find” yourself with spare time and have no conscious intention of how you’ll apply it. I often see employees go back to their desks with less energy than they had before they started their break because they filled the time with “placeholder” activities like eating snacks or reading whatever newspaper or magazine happened to be in front of them.
You can dramatically improve the quality of your breaks by know what you’ll do with them in advance. Planning what you’ll do with your free time seems like a contradiction in terms, but “free” doesn’t mean arbitrary. You’re free when you’re able to live deliberately. If the purpose of a 30-minute break is recovery, consider taking a 15-minute nap in the middle of a round trip to your car. If the purpose is nourishment, pick up something healthy from the store the evening before rather than hitting the vending machine or fast food venue.
Very short breaks
Like meetings, breaks have fallen prey to ritual lengths that are rarely questioned, reexamined or challenged. Just as many 10-minute conversations get inflated into 30-minute meetings, you can often regroup with a 2-3 minute break as effectively as a 15-minute one. This can happen when it’s your concentration, rather than your energy, that needs recovery.
If you’ve been sitting at your desk focused intensely on a single task, but are now finding your mind wandering, it’s usually best to stop your mental activity completely for a few minutes, or deliberately switch it over to an entirely new focus of attention. Taking a break by listening to one song can be all the time you need before returning to your work. Short phone calls to friends and significant others, just to say hello and connect, can provide a surprising amount of recovery in a few short minutes.
Getting up and away from your desk for almost any reason can be a great recovery tool. If you can get into the habit of keeping beverages off your desk, you’ll create a context for getting up from your desk to get a drink, and you’ll probably consume less than before in the process.
Fresh air, not Facebook
Even if the immediate environment outside of your office isn’t particularly scenic, taking a walk is a great way to take advantage of longer breaks, especially if you leave the portable audio player behind. Walks give you the space to think and observe without having recourse surfing the web to fill time.
Though I don’t recommend taking scheduled breaks if they’re not enforced, there are times when scheduling can work for you. Some people have a hard time determining when their energy or concentration falls, until they suddenly realize they’ve been staring at a wall for the last 15 minutes.
Start by scheduling your first break earlier than you think you’ll need it, then gradually move it to a later time. Taking a very short break after then first hour of working allows you to consciously assess whether or not it was actually warranted. If not, then the next day, take your first break 15 minutes later than the day before. Reassess and repeat.
Sooner or later your internal sensitivity kicks in, and you no longer need a schedule to decide whether or not to take a break. You won’t take a break unless you need one. Skipping breaks may involve less exertion than taking them due to task switching overhead. If you’re working in flow, “in the zone,” stopping that flow and working past the inertia of starting again might not be worth it, unless you’re using the final hack.
Park on a downward slope
The metaphor is Gina Trapani’s, but many prolific writers have been using this trick for ages. Instead of waiting for fatigue or distraction to set it, you stop at the latest moment possible while you’re still working with peak energy or concentration.
The operative principle here is that you’re not groping for a starting point when you resume. You come back to your work knowing the very next action, so you can jump directly into doing your work rather than thinking about it. This works especially well for longer, high-focus tasks that won’t necessarily be completed in one sitting (it makes less sense to split up shorter tasks). The shorter your breaks, the less inertia you’ll have to overcome.
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As someone who is constantly in front of the computer 90% of the day, I enjoy taking an occasional [short] walk outside or even going to a nearby park during lunch. Its pretty amazing how recharged I am upon returning from being outdoors.
The ‘park on a downward slope’ thought process is brilliant. I love when I can return from a break and be motivated and inspired to complete the next portion of a project.
Also, a mistake I think a lot of people make is taking their lunch break in the same environment in which they do the majority of their work. In my opinion, a change of scenery is imperative to staying productive for that afternoon block of work.
I need a break after this article. True facts.
+1 for *Fresh air, not Facebook* (;
I’m all for a post that tells me to take a break..lol
Amazing what a 15min break away from everything will do to your productivity.
This is the first post I’ve read from your blog and I will definitely come back for the next one. I can relate to what you said about taking a break and feeling more exhausted than before. Glad to find solutions to avoid this. I think for a change, I’ll take most of the tips you gave, especially leaving your portable player behind during breaks. Thanks for this refreshing post.
As an engineering student, I need to balance my break time and my study/co-curricular time. This becomes vitally important during exams. I’ve seen that trying to schedule breaks doesn’t really help during pressure-study situations. Rather, it drives away my focus from studies. And hence, I use quick breaks (I like thinking of them as time-outs) during my study routine. I take a break every time i feel there is a need to take one. Also, I keep a lot of leeway about the duration of the break. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a 10-minute stroll, or a 20-minute power nap. At times, I even take “breaks” which are two-hours long. Counter-productive for some, but it really helps me handle all the stress.
Taking some fresh air on short walk is my favorite break I use. It’s great way to fresh the mind, too, and rest the eyes.
When I was in education there was a theory that 45 mins was the optimum time to concentrate for and that is why we have 1-hour long lessons in school. What? Doesn’t make sense? Let me explain. The structure can be like this…..students enter, sit, quieten down, register, organise and then start lesson….not less than 5 mins. Lesson 45 mins. Then 5-10mins before the end…..wrap up, homework assignments, other reminders, pack up and then end….60 mins.
Make sense? 45 mins it is. 🙂
Park on a downward slope is a good technique… I often fall prey to taking breaks when I’m stuck on something, rather than on a roll. Thanks for that tip!
I usually try and get up, walk away from my cubicle and out in to more of a common area during my breaks. They seem to help but the more I take them the more I am in need of another one, then another one….
Good tips, often times I feel guilty about taking breaks since at my current position I’m billed hourly – but most of the time they help get good ideas to well up.
I give in to the nod. Take a nap! I set my timer for an hour so I don’t over do it, but I usually wake up refreshed in about 1/2 hour. It’s like a second morning (for me the most productive time of the day) and I’m ready to rev up again.