I know we’ve all been there, embracing those relentless days when there’s simply no time for breaks. A day so busy that you’re already planning out how to attack it during your commute to the office. No matter which way you slice and dice your daily to-do list, one thing is for certain, you’re going to be head down all day, come hell or high water.

That’s the most efficient way to get a load of tasks completed, right? My friends, I’m happy to inform you that you couldn’t be more wrong. Breaks are not only a good way to keep your productivity levels high, but also a great way to ensure you’re working comfortably all day. Let me explain.

While the fundamentals of the idea are solid: “can’t get more work done if I’m not actively working,” that logic fails to recognise us as living, breathing humans with minds and bodies we need to respond to. A continual stream of stimuli that forces us to concentrate for extended periods of time wears away at our mental faculties, which after a long enough period will cause “decision fatigue,”  an increase in the time it takes us to make decisions. The longer we work without breaks, the more compounded this becomes — which is a great way to run your productivity into the ground. So, we’re all in agreement that breaks are necessary, but you may be asking “How many should I take?” Or “How long should they be?” “Should I get up and walk around, or go from staring at my big screen to the little screen in my pocket?” These are all important questions!

Admittedly, there is a fine line between taking a productivity break and spending 25 minutes giving Janice in accounts payable a full synopsis of your favourite Black Mirror episode from the latest season. But following a few simple guidelines will help ensure a break designed to boost your productivity doesn’t become the death knell for your deadlines.

There are three factors to consider when devising a break schedule: frequency, duration and activity. The first point of consideration is how often you should be taking breaks. While there are many different schools of thought and methodologies, from university studies, data from productivity tracking apps, and the oft-touted Pomodoro Technique, there is no singular consensus, as everybody is different. As a good rule of thumb, plan on taking a quick screen break every 20 minutes, and a more robust break every 60-90 minutes. A screen break every 20 minutes seems like a lot, but they are very short breaks designed to prevent headaches and quickly reset your headspace.

I suggest following the 20/20/20 rule, which means every 20 minutes of screen time, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. These short, consistent breaks help reduce eye strain and reset your focus. For the longer, less frequent breaks, five to 10 minutes will do wonders for giving your brain a break and reinvigorating your productivity. That said, not all breaks are created equally, and what you do on your breaks can vastly change the effectiveness of your brief work hiatus.

There are a few simple do’s and don’ts to follow to guarantee your break is effective in resetting your headspace and putting you in a position to be your best, productive self. Let’s start with the things you want to avoid doing in your downtime. As tempting as it may be, stay off your phone. One of the biggest benefits of these breaks is giving your eyes an extended rest from blue light producing screens which can lead to eye strain. In turn eye strain can result in headaches and lack of focus in both your eyes and your mind. As you can probably deduce, none of these are good for productivity. If you don’t feel your best, you won’t perform at your best.

Another big no-no is staying sedentary. Getting up from your desk to go sit in the break room and count how many sugars Keith the warehouse manager is putting in his coffee is not a great way to recharge your battery. Although you may be giving your brain a break, your body needs just the opposite. Sitting for extended periods of time can leave your body feeling stiff, sore, and fatigued, which contributes to discomfort while working, and just as before when you don’t feel your best you won’t perform at your best.

Movement while on your break is a key factor in helping yourself stay productive. Not only does taking a walk or doing some light stretching help reduce pain and stiffness while working at a desk, but movement can also increase blood flow, help circulation, be a mood enhancer and fight off that lethargic, post lunch feeling. While you’re out and about on a jaunt, it is okay to disconnect your brain from work. Removing the current project or task from your mind allows you to come back to it in a few minutes with a fresh perspective and can help create that “a-ha” moment needed for tricky problems.

It’s not super important what you’re thinking about while on a break, as long as it isn’t about work. You can think about what you need to grab from the store so you can try that new recipe for dinner, you could ponder what it would be like for the world’s tallest man to try and get on an airplane, or if that episode of Black Mirror you talked Janice into a boredom induced coma about is really your favorite form the newest season, it’s really up to you.

I know this isn’t rocket science we’re dealing with here, but you would be surprised how many people forget to take breaks during the day and how it can negatively affect their productivity and wellbeing. If you care about hitting those deadlines while still feeling good at the end of a long workday then adopting a schedule for breaks throughout your workday that involve movement, breaks from screens, and taking your mind off work is a great place to start.

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Mike Pace
Ergonomics Expert at Contour Design | + posts

With a decade at Contour Design, Mike drives corporate ergonomics. He's launched 30+ ergonomic products, excelling in sales, marketing, and relationship-building. Proficient in Salesforce, Excel, Google Analytics, and more, Mike holds a CEAS certification and continues to champion ergonomic awareness.