Why you should take more frequent breaks

Pepijn Lochtenberg

Getting more things more by taking frequent breaks is almost like getting rich while sleeping. But if proper brain functioning is important in your line of work, here’s the reality: by incorporating more moments of recovery for your brain throughout the day, you’ll end up getting more done than when you’re powering through all day long.

Productivity paradox

This phenomenon is called the productivity paradox (Tigchelaar & de Bos, 2019) and few people are aware of it. Many people still think that the longer and the harder they work, the more they get done. For occupations where you hardly need to use your thinking brain - for example, on the assembly line - this is certainly true to some extent. 

For your job, however, you are paid to use your thinking brain: your ability to process information, consider options, plan, be creative and empathize with others. In your case, the effect of working longer and longer is that your productivity becomes negative. Yes it’s true: it doesn't mean you get less done, it means you’re creating more work for yourself. After all, the mistakes you make due to a tired brain and lack of focus, you’ll have to correct the next day.

By frequently taking real breaks, you’ll avoid these mistakes and your focus will be better in the moments you are working. Therefore, your productivity will increase. 

How to take effective breaks

So how do you make sure that these breaks are really a break for your brain? The most important thing is that you do not take in any new information. For example, checking the news or your social media is not a real break for your brain.

Possible activities that do give your brain a moment of relaxation: 

  • A short walk, preferably with greenery around you
  • Listening to music
  • Staring out the window
  • Making a cup of coffee or tea and drinking it with full attention
  • Sitting outside

No doubt you can think of a number of other breaks during which your brain is not absorbing new information. Then, of course, the question is: how many breaks do you take during the working day?

Timing and duration of your breaks

How often and for how long you need to take a break depends on many factors. Develop the awareness to notice when it is time to take a break. For example, when you notice that it is getting harder to stay focused on one thing or when you are reading a text without really taking the information in. 

With that in mind, I have the following guidelines for you:

25 minutes of work, 3 to 5 minutes break (Pomodoro technique)

If you are doing small tasks, such as answering mail, short research work, or an agenda for a meeting.

60 to 90 minutes of work, 10 to 15 minutes break

If the task you are working on requires more concentration, such as reading an article, writing a report or preparing a presentation.

120 minutes of work, 15 to 30 minutes break

If the task you are about to do requires really deep concentration, such as programming or solving a complex problem.

In addition, take time for a 30-minute break halfway through the day, during which you eat your lunch and get outside.

'It doesn't feel good!'

Taking a break doesn't always feel good. Sometimes I find it hard to take a real break. The following thoughts come to mind: 

  • 'If I take a break now, I'll get out of the flow and I won't be able to get into it very well later.'
  • 'I'm busy, I really don't have time to take a break.'
  • 'If I take a break now, everyone will think I'm unmotivated or lazy.'

At those times, taking a break doesn't feel comfortable. But scientific research, my own experiences and the experiences of my clients show that in the long run, it is the best choice:

  • You’ll get more done that day, because you are more creative and effective.
  • You’ll go home refreshed, which makes you more sociable at home.
  • You’ll have more energy and higher quality of work the next day.

So, the question you need to ask yourself is: are you willing to accept that taking a break in the moment feels uncomfortable, in order to be more productive, efficient and energetic for the rest of the day and the rest of the week?

In my experience, we build confidence over time that the breaks we take will pay off over the course of the day. That knowledge will make it a little easier each time we take a break. But before that happens, we'll have to experiment with the feelings of discomfort in doing so.

Triggers

Especially in the beginning, it can be helpful to remind yourself of your intention. You can do this by building in a trigger. For example, set a timer after you have worked a certain amount of time and then take a break. In this way, you do not have to keep track of time yourself and you can remind yourself of the time.

Good luck!

Sources

Tigchelaar, M. & de Bos, O. (2019). Focus on / off. Spectrum.

Pepijn Lochtenberg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.