The Science of Taking Breaks at Work to Help Boost Your Productivity

The counter-intuitive approach to improving consistency and building a healthy work-life balance.

The Science of Taking Breaks at Work to Help Boost Your Productivity
Photo by Jonas Svidras on Unsplash

The counter-intuitive approach to improving consistency and building a healthy work-life balance.

In this era of you snooze, you lose, so many people are terrified of taking a break. They fear others might overtake them, that they’d be left behind and fail to achieve anything they wished for. In a recent survey by Inc. Magazine on more than 200 office workers, about a quarter of employees admitted to never leaving their desk except for lunch.

But do you really need to be on the verge of a breakdown to deserve a break? Is abusing your mind and body such an achievement? I decided to take a look at the science behind taking breaks and was surprised by the revelations: periodic breaks are actually good for you and your work.

In this post, I am going to share all the interesting bits of knowledge I found from my research and how you can apply them to your life to build a healthy work-life balance. I’ll also address some important questions like when should you take a break, how long should these breaks be, what should you do during your break, among others.

Why Take a Break

There’s no doubt that breaks can bring you fun, relaxation, and entertainment. But, as Psychology Today establishes, taking a break has a direct impact on boosting your productivity. Here are a few science-backed ways in which breaks might be essential for your functioning:

Prevent “decision fatigue”

Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. As this famous study on the decision-making capabilities of Israeli judges suggests, it can lead to simplistic decision-making and procrastination.

In the study, it was found that the judges were more likely to grant paroles to prisoners after coming back from food-breaks, as compared to when they’d been working for hours at a stretch. As decision fatigue set in after long hours of work, the rate of granting paroles gradually dropped to near 0%. This was explained as the judges resorting to the option that required them to put in the least amount of thought— just say no.

When you’re tired from a day of working hard and upholding constant self-motivation, your brain might feel exhausted. This can lead you to procrastinate on major projects you might have planned for the latter part of the day.

Restore motivation for long-term goals

A 2011 study suggests that prolonged attention to a single task can hinder performance. “Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras says. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”

Boost productivity and improve creativity

Taking breaks refreshes the mind and eases the stress and exhaustion arising from working for long stretches. According to research, the “Aha moments” came more often to those who take regular breaks.

Taking walking breaks in between work has proven to improve creativity. A study from Stanford University showed that when people tackled mental tasks that required imagination, walking led to more creative thinking than sitting did.

How to Make Sure the Breaks Are Effective

While research has repeatedly suggested that breaks are crucial components of a person’s work session, it’s important to understand that not all ways to reboot can be effective. You might be tempted to browse through social media during a break, but that might be counter-productive. As this survey by Huffington Post suggests, activities like social networking can significantly increase stress, rendering a social media break detrimental. Here are some science-back ways to take an effective break:

Movement is medicine

As Psychology Today puts it: “Movement is medicine”. Taking a few “movement breaks” in between work can greatly help you improve focus and concentrate better.

As this study of people spending most of their time confined to a desk concluded: “Standing up and walking around for five minutes every hour during the workday could lift your mood and combat lethargy without reducing focus and attention. It can and even dull hunger pangs.”

Meditation is also medicine

Meditation during a break is an effective way to lower anxiety and to boost brain activity. This post by Psychology Today establishes four particularly helpful times of the day to meditate:

  • First thing in the morning,
  • During a midday break,
  • At the end of the work-day,
  • Whenever you feel stress.

Take a nap to recharge

A good nap can help you feel more refreshed and energetic. According to a study published in Nature Neuroscience, people who took a 30-minute nap between work are more likely to stay more alert. A 60-minute nap showed even better results.

However, if you sleep for more than 45 minutes, but not long enough to go through a full sleep-cycle, it might lead to sleep inertia. This will be counter-productive and you’ll take you a long time to be fully awake again.

Get a healthy snack

Since our brains effectively run on glucose, it can never hurt to refuel with some healthy calories while taking a break. According to Business Insider, here are the healthiest food items to snack on in between work:

  • Yoghurt
  • Almonds
  • Wasabi peas
  • Fresh or dried fruit
  • Protein bar
  • Tomato juice
  • Apples and peanut butter

Have some coffee

Coffee could be a great way to bring your brain to focus on the task at hand. A study conducted in 2010 concluded that employees who take regular coffee breaks are more efficient and productive during work. A dose of caffeine can keep you alert, reduce stress, and help you stay active.

How Often to Take Breaks

While the rule of thumb is simple: take a break when your brain feels saturated, different researchers have come up with different opinions:

While it’s true that different durations work for different people, you should decide how often to take a break depending on the type of work you need to do. Keep the momentum for as long as you can and take a break after 90 or so minutes. However, if your thoughts start to wander more frequently, a short break every 20 minutes might be helpful.

Final Words

Hustling is awesome, but you need to take care of yourself too. Breaks are an enriching way of giving your brain that much-needed rest. According to Forbes, taking breaks as self-care can literally save your life.

Breaks should be a priority, not a reward for completing your to-do list. Listen to your body and know when to stop. Taking a break will help you perform better, get better ideas, and feel good about yourself. Follow these science-backed tips and you can maintain a healthy work-life balance.

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