Science Says You Have to Stop Taking Breaks Wrong to Be More Productive

Working Remotely

Not all breaks at work are created equal. And if you're not taking any during your remote workday, you're probably also terrible at your job.

How often do you take breaks during your workday?

Or do you think breaks are only for lazy remote employees who work in their pajamas on the couch?

Unfortunately, toiling all day from sunrise to sunset will not make you an uber-productive work machine. And this old school mindset may be costing you more than productivity.

Science says taking breaks isn't a waste of time; it's a necessity for your career and well-being.

What Skipping Breaks at Work Does to Your Mojo

When you don't take breaks at work:

You Lose Focus and Concentration

Work is challenging. And you have to avoid a lot of temptations to get your to-do list done.

You may think working through your breaks will keep your productivity train rolling, but studies show your performance actually gets worse the longer you have to focus on one specific task for an extended period[*].

Humans just can't concentrate for eight hours in a row; most employees only get two hours and 53 minutes of productive time in an eight-hour day, after all[*].

And on top of not accomplishing as much as you should, you also take more work stress home when you shrug off breaks.

Lack of Psychological Detachment from Work

Psychological detachment, a phrase devised by Sabine Sonnentag, is the process of "switching off" from work mode to let your brain and body relax and recover from your job's stressful demands[*].

This detachment only comes from physically separating yourself from work thoughts and tasks. If you don't take these breaks during the day, you'll carry your work stress home with you and never find rest.

Sonnentag says:

"Employees who feel more detached from work during off-hours are more satisfied with their lives and experience less emotional exhaustion and lower levels of other symptoms of psychological strain, without being less engaged while at work."

So when you get to mentally disengage from your work thoughts with a break, you give your brain breathing room to think and process those thoughts.

This moment of recovery will help your brain rebound from the mounting fatigue and open up to creative solutions.

Skip these breaks and your brain will eventually want to shut off and stop making decisions.

Decision Fatigue Mounts

Making hundreds of decisions every day, from what to write in an email to when to schedule your social media launches, eventually leads to decision fatigue.

Reach this point and your brain will get so tired of making decisions, you'll start to make the wrong ones out of sheer exhaustion.

As one study showed, judges who skipped breaks during their shifts were less likely to grant parole to prisoners later in the day[*]. They were so tired and wiped out from making weighty decisions, they simply went with the easiest choices.

Decision fatigue is bad enough, but it's also just one step away from experiencing real fatigue.

Real Fatigue Kicks In

Signs of fatigue include[*]:
  • Chronic tiredness or sleepiness
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Sore or aching muscles
  • Muscle weakness
  • Slowed reflexes and responses; impaired hand-to-eye coordination
  • Poor decision-making and judgement
  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Appetite loss
  • Weak immune system
  • Tired eyes and blurry vision
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Low attention span, concentration, and motivation

Fatigue can even cause you to ignore rules and better judgements you would normally heed.

Researchers saw firsthand that doctors who didn't take enough breaks during the day stopped washing their hands as the day went on[*]. Their fatigue overruled safety rules they would have followed had they taken more time to mentally recuperate with breaks during the day.

You can't wait until you get to this point of physical exhaustion to take a break; the damage is already done.

But you can create a plan to avoid reaching this point of burnout and stay productive.

How to Take Breaks the Right Way

Taking breaks during your workday can help you:
  • Prevent decision fatigue
  • Boost energy levels
  • Increase attention and focus
  • Become more creative
  • Strengthen your memory
  • Renew your motivation after stress
  • Help you accomplish more during the day
  • Lower stress and anxiety
  • Step out and see the bigger picture

A break will always be a good decision -- as long as you're not taking breaks the wrong way.

Stop Taking Unproductive Breaks Like These

Not all breaks provide the same psychological benefits.

Research shows certain types of breaks actually increase fatigue, such as drinking caffeine, mindless snacking, online shopping, and venting to your coworkers[*].

Even the instant gratification of using social media during your breaks lowers your ability to focus back at work[*].

If these are the only breaks you know how to take, keep reading.

Learn What a Productive Break Looks Like

The right kind of break will allow you to detach from work and fight off the negative effects of stress.

In her practical guide to taking intentional breaks at work, Marta Brzosko at Better Humans says you need two key components to create the perfect, productive timeout.

You need to do something[*]:
  1. Completely different from your work. Sitting at a computer all day? Get up, walk around, and tear yourself away from the screen. Coworking somewhere noisy? Find solo time to regroup somewhere quiet.

  2. You actually enjoy. This should bring pure happiness and positive vibes. These counteract the negative emotions like stress and anxiety, and increase blood flow to parts of the brain used to focus[*].

Using these guidelines as inspiration, consider taking a break in which you[*]:
  • Meditate to help your body relax and clear your brain in silence.
  • Stretch or walk in nature. Moderate cardio has been shown to boost creativity and productivity for up to two hours[*]. Plus, being out in nature improves your mood and lowers stress while increasing your energy levels and concentration[*].
  • Be social. Chat with a friend, visit the coffee shop, take your dog on a walk, or have playtime with the kids if you're a parent working from home.
  • Daydream and give your brain free roam to stretch.
  • Laugh. Scientists in one study learned taking a break to watch a funny video improved performance afterwards[*].
  • Update your resume, especially if you intend to snag a better remote position.

If you don't know when to stop working, start scheduling intentional breaks instead of hoping they come up spontaneously.

Schedule Your Breaks

How often should you take breaks at work? And how long should your breaks be?

There are many schools of thought concerning the optimal timing of breaks.

Some argue people go from fully focused to fatigued every 90 minutes, so taking a break every 75--90 minutes works best for them[*].

Desktime, an app used to track time and productivity, supports a specific 17-minute break every 52 minutes[*].

And fans of the Pomodoro Technique take a five-minute break every 25-minutes, and when they do this four times they win a 30-minute break[*].

The trick is finding the right break schedule for your work style. Experiment with taking a break every 30--90 minutes until you learn what's best for you.

Then schedule breaks on your calendar or in your planner -- and stick to them. You can also make a break date with another professional so you can hold each other accountable.

When it's time to take your break, start with one goal.

Give Every Break a Clear Intention

Take 30 seconds to focus on what you need from your break and you'll have a much better idea of which type of break to take.

It can be as simple as quieting your thoughts to as a mundane as stretching your legs. The point is to become more aware of what you need, choose the right path to meet that goal, and return to work feeling accomplished.

So begin your break with a clear goal or intention.

Then set a timer so you know when to get back to work.

The best way to stay productive is to stop for a break while you're still having fun. This will help you become more excited to return to work when your break's over.

Follow these tips and you'll be on your way to a more productive workday starting today.

And if you're still feeling unmotivated, don't wait for one of the big hiring waves to start working on your resume and find a job you'll like more.

Learn what you need to do before applying for remote work and browse job listings at We Work Remotely on your breaks.

If you find the job you were meant for, that five minutes away from your desk may become the best, most productive decision ever made.

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