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The Science of Breaks at Work: Change Your Thinking About Downtime

Productivity-boosting activities for breaks

Productivity-boosting activities for breaks
  • Take a walk. 
  • Daydream. It leads to creativity.
  • Eat to replenish your brain.
  • Read a (non-work) book.
  • Get a coffee. 
  • Doodle. It can stimulate new ideas and help us stay focused.

  • Listen to music.

  • Nap.

  • Exercise.

  • Talk to friends or co-workers.

  • Go outside and see some nature.

  • Exercise your eyes with the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break for at least 20 seconds and look at objects that are 20 feet away from you.

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The Science of Breaks at Work: Change Your Thinking About Downtime

The Science of Breaks at Work: Change Your Thinking About Downtime

https://open.buffer.com/science-taking-breaks-at-work/

open.buffer.com

9

Key Ideas

Breaks keep us from getting bored

The human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days.

The fix for this unfocused condition is simple—all we need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track.

Breaks and brain connections

Our brains have two modes:

  • focused mode, which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working) and 
  • diffuse mode, which is our more relaxed, daydreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard.

The mind solves its stickiest problems while daydreaming—something you may have experienced while driving or taking a shower.

Breaks help us reevaluate our goals

When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. 

Stop feeling guilty about breaks

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is indispensable to the brain. It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

The Pomodoro technique

Work in small bursts to help you get rid of distractions and focus more intently.

Just set a timer for 25 minutes, and when it goes off, take a short break for 5 minutes. Stretch your legs, grab a drink, or just sit back and relax. After you’ve done four Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break of 30 minutes or so.

90-minute work blocks

Working in 90-minute intervals for maximizing productivity means working with our bodies’ natural rhythms.

When studies were conducted on elite performers like violinists, athletes, actors and chess players, the results showed that the best performers practised in focused sessions of no more than 90 minutes.

The 52-17 method

Most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then take a break for 17 minutes before getting back to it. 

They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.

Two 15-minute breaks per day

Blocking out two planned, 15-minute intermissions in your day—one in the mid-morning and the other in the mid-afternoon. 

Around 3 p.m. is the least productive time of day, so definitely don’t skip that break.

Productivity-boosting activities for breaks

  • Take a walk. 
  • Daydream. It leads to creativity.
  • Eat to replenish your brain.
  • Read a (non-work) book.
  • Get a coffee. 
  • Doodle. It can stimulate new ideas and help us stay focused.

  • Listen to music.

  • Nap.

  • Exercise.

  • Talk to friends or co-workers.

  • Go outside and see some nature.

  • Exercise your eyes with the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break for at least 20 seconds and look at objects that are 20 feet away from you.

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Taking breaks is key to better productivity
Taking breaks is key to better productivity

The harder and longer you work, the less productive overall you'll be. Research confirms that taking breaks before you're mentally exhausted is essential for productivity.

Setting healthy boundaries

Set your personal boundaries, so you have dedicated time to take care of yourself, your family or household, and your professional responsibilities. You won't be any good to your family if you regularly jump up to respond to work.

The key to success is deciding on expectations, then communicating those to others. You need to get clear in your mind what hours you will be attending to your work. Perhaps dedicate a space in your home as the "office," letting everyone know that you need privacy. Decide when you are "on" and when you are "off."

Technology and productivity

We all have tools in our pockets to help us.

  • For example, consider using your phone's built-in alarm for taking breaks, or giving yourself a reminder to eat lunch, or taking a screen break to reduce eyestrain.
  • If you find it challenging to work, consider a productivity method like the Pomodoro technique, where you work deeply for about 25 minutes, then take a short break. Repeat four of the cycles, then take a 30-minute break before starting again. There are many Pomodoro apps to help you.
  • Don't forget to use the same technology to turn off notifications and distractions while you're working.

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The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro is doing focused work in 25-minute sessions throughout the day. After each session, take a five-minute break. After completing four consecutive Pomodoros, take a 20 to 30-minute break.

The Problem with Pomodoro

Pomodoro is excellent for tackling tasks you don't feel like doing or jobs that require little thought.

However, other tasks, like writing or coding, require uninterrupted time. The problem with the Pomodoro method is that the timer is a consistent interruption that prevents you from getting into a state of flow.

The Flowtime Technique

It is a modified Pomodoro. And it solves Pomodoro's big problems.

  • It works by writing down one task you intend to work on during a focus session.
  • Then work until you start feeling tired or distracted, write down the end time, and take a break. A break can be anything from 5 minutes to 15 minutes.

Because you're not tied to a timer, you're more likely to find yourself in a flow state from time to time.

one more idea

The philosophy of working "smart"

... is to maximize your productivity when you are working so that you can get more stuff done in shorter periods of time.

By working smarter, you'll find yourself with more time in th...

Find the to-do list app that work for you

The best one for you depends entirely on your working style and personal preferences.

You can use a physical notebook around everywhere you go, but it's easier to use a to-do list app or tool that syncs across all your devices. That way, you can access your to-do items whenever and wherever you need to, whether you're at your desk, in a meeting, or on a business trip.

Prepare in advance

Write out your to-do list the day before:

  • You'll free your time to dive right into your to-do list in the morning - one of the most productive times of day.
  • It can help you spot obstacles ahead of time and prepare accordingly.
  • Knowing what you have going on well in advance could help you relax and sleep better the night before.

9 more ideas

Write A Stop-Doing List

Remind yourself of items that don’t bring you joy, and contribute very little to your long-term goals.

This way, you’re unlikely to spend a lot of time doing time-sucking, non-rewardin...

Schedule Procrastination Breaks

During this allotted break, give yourself permission to do time-wasting activities (social media scrolling included) until you got bored and want to move on to your next task. 

Divide Your Day Into Themes

And if your job isn’t ideal for focusing on one thing per day, you can dedicate your morning to one focus area, your early afternoon to another, and late afternoon to another.

This way, instead of being overly restrictive about finishing a task in that time period, you have the flexibility to do any work that moves you forward in that particular focus area.

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There is no perfect method for everyone

There is no "one size fits all schedule" for maximum productivity.

Because we all have particular strengths and weaknesses when it comes to time management and productivity, what works...

The Time Blocking Method

It involves planning out your day in advance and dedicating specific hours to accomplish specific tasks. 

It’s important to block out both proactive blocks (when you focus on important tasks) and reactive blocks (when you allow time for requests and interruptions).

The Most Important Task Method (MIT)

Instead of writing a big to-do list and trying to get it all done, determine the 1-3 tasks that are absolutely essential and then focus on those tasks during the day. 

You don’t do anything else until you’ve completed the three essential tasks.

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Myth #5: You Should Never Work At Home
Myth #5: You Should Never Work At Home

Some people working from home have a higher efficiency on time spent working and performance per minute. The employees surveyed also reported they were happier working at home. 

Myth #4: Pushing To Get Things Done

Willpower is a limited resource, one that we deplete through hard, focused work. We need to take regular breaks to restore our flagging willpower and keep our productivity in the long run.

Take a break and do something different for a few minutes every half-hour or so to give your brain a break and replenish your mental resources. 

Myth #3: The Internet Is A Distraction

The Internet distracts but we use it for researching items and retaining information. If you build up your searching skills and ignore distractions, like social networks, it becomes just a tool.

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We Need Breaks
recent Apple ad celebrated entrepreneurs working so hard, they’re not able to see t...
Take A Break Every 52 Minutes

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.

Distract Yourself To Recharge Your Focus

Intense focus actually makes us less focused in the long run. 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.

5 more ideas

The Basics of Productivity
The Basics of Productivity

Three overarching principles apply to all productivity tips.

  • Start with small increments. You can't expect to instantly change years of working habits overnight....
For the Multitasker

When you're trying to do many things at once, you're often getting very little done.

  • We have limited cognitive bandwidth. Your brain may trick you into thinking it has more capacity, but your ability to work efficiently depends on how well you can focus on one task at a time.
  • When you move back and forth between tasks, your brain's neural networks must backtrack to see where they left off and then reconfigure. The extra activity increase errors.
  • Real innovative thinking emerges when we allow our brains to continue in a logical path of associated thoughts and ideas. Multitasking leads to less creativity.
How to Monotask

As best as you can, set up a work environment that encourages doing one task at a time. Even doing one task for five minutes can be beneficial:

  • Actively resist the urge to check social media while you are busy with a task. You may have to install anti-distraction apps that will block access for specific periods.
  • Work on just one screen: Put away your cellphone and turn off other screens.
  • If you start losing focus, get up and walk around to help you refocus.
  • Set a timer for five or ten minutes and commit to focusing for that amount of time. Allow a short break, and get back to your task for another five or ten minutes.

The more we work on focusing on one task at a time, the easier it becomes to focus.

4 more ideas

Recharging your energy
Just as you need to refuel your car and recharge the batteries in your cell phone, it’s important to give yourself the chance to recoup your energy levels throughout the workday.
Fully switch off

We're usually tempted to spend breaks doing things that are convenient but aren’t truly restful (internet shopping, browsing the latest news, etc.) 

But brief work breaks are only genuinely rejuvenating when they give you the chance to fully switch off. Any kind of activity that involves willpower or concentration, even if it’s not in a work context, is only going to add to your fatigue levels.

Take short breaks early and often

The timing of our breaks makes a difference.

Although it may be tempting to wait until we’re flagging later in the day before allowing ourselves a short break, we actually respond better to breaks in the morning - it seems we need to have some fuel in the tank to benefit from a re-fill.

one more idea

Pulse And Pause

Research shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes.

Many different methods have been developed around the idea of work...

Work To A Deadline

In addition to the science behind the productivity benefits of “pulse and pause”, many users of the technique feel the deadline approach provides added value.

Ian Cleary, founder of Razorsocial (an award-winning marketing technology blog): “When you have a deadline, you are more productive.”

Think Healthy

Regular exercise improves our metabolism and increases energy levels. But many feel that including exercise within the workday is asking for too much—and that’s why using a longer break for simple exercise is so effective. Simple exercise could include a 20-minute power walk or a bike ride of similar length.