You’ll never be the best you can be if you aim to be 100 percent productive all the time. It’s impossible for anyone to work nonstop without paying a price, be it a decrease in quality, output, or safety. We all need to take breaks. If you’ve newly found yourself working from home while the world tries to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, you may be tempted to compare your at-home break schedule to one you used to follow in your place of business. “Would I have spent 10 minutes opening a package if I had been at work?” “I’m not usually this distracted when I’m at work.”
We’re All Under More Stress Than Usual
First, anyone who has worked remotely for a long time will tell you there’s no sense in comparing your break schedule at the office to the one you follow at home. They are two different environments. The interruptions are different. Your focus is different. Your productivity will also be different. It takes time to figure out your new way of working. Second, the current situation is not normal. You might be more distracted by the news. You might get interrupted by children, pets, or other people in your home. Third, with all these changes, we are all under more stress than usual. Stress depletes our energy. When we’re low on energy, we need a break. I’ve argued, in fact, that putting self-care before productivity will keep you healthier and happier. Counterintuitively—for some, least— it will almost certainly improve your productivity in the long run, if done right.
Knowledge workers (myself included) usually are responsible for their own break schedules. It’s up to us to determine when to take a two-minute break to read headlines or how slowly to stroll down the hall to get a glass of water.
People often take breaks based on intuition, without any sort of regard for how long they need to recuperate or when they will take their next break. Not everyone has good intuition. It’s easy to get led down an Internet rabbit hole while taking a break. It’s also easy to stop one task in hopes of taking a break only to get caught up in checking email, and that’s not a break.
The Theory of Breaks
To take useful breaks that actually allow us to be more productive, we need to understand the theory of why and how they work.
When describing workplace burnout, which is what we’re trying to avoid when we take breaks, researchers sometimes turn to the model of conservation of resources. The theory, developed by Stevan E. Hobfoll in the 1980s, explains how people handle stress. In short, it says that we all have internal resources for coping with stress, called resources. We can use our resources for a while, but at some point, we need to rebuild the resources that we lost.
At the time Hobfoll came up with this theory, experts were starting to understand that stress (they usually use the term “stressors”) is constant and ubiquitous, rather than being caused by single events. In other words, we experience stress any time we work. It’s constant. There doesn’t have to be a traumatic event at work to cause work-related stress. Stress is always there, and we’re always using our resources to deal with it. As we run low on resources and our remaining resources are threatened, that’s burnout.
So what do we need to do to rebuild those resources? Under what conditions do we start to feel healed and recovered from stressors? Two researchers who were examining these questions ran a study on vacations. They concluded that three things really help people recover and return to work feeling recharged: 1) positive work reflection (thinking and talking about the positive aspects of one’s job), 2) mastery (working on a skill), and 3) relaxation. All three of those things help rebuild resources. Two more things that may help are socializing on the weekend and not dealing with not having unexpected hassles when you’re trying to take a vacation—think of getting a flat tire just as you’re supposed to kick off a road trip.
If we pull back and think about what all those pieces mean, collectively, it’s that to be relieved of work stress, we need to:
- Not workDo something enjoyable
It may sound like common sense, but if you’ve ever taken a break from a work task by checking email (which is still work and hardly enjoyable), you didn’t really take a break, did you?
What Kinds of Breaks Are Best?
So we know that the break must actually be a break from work and work-related stuff. Email is not a break. Complaining about work with coworkers, cathartic as it may be, isn’t really a break.
Two questions people have about breaks is how often should they be and how long should they be, for maximum benefit?
Putting numbers on the length and frequency is tricky. Some studies have attempted it for knowledge workers, but there is no number that’s agreed upon across multiple studies. A popular and often re-blogged 2014 post on The Muse says the ideal break schedule is to work for 57 minutes, followed by a 17-minute break, but I wouldn’t rely too heavily on that. Those numbers, which come from a computer-monitoring software company, don’t include any rich details about the subjects, their line of work, the raw data, or how it was analyzed.
A better study found that the optimal amount of time for breaks is about 12 percentof the workday. The same study showed that short intermittent breaks are better than one or two long breaks. If we take 12 percent and apply it to an eight-hour workday, then we get about 58 minutes of break time. As an example, five breaks of about 12 minutes each would do the trick.
Ergonomics expert and a professor emeritus at Cornell University Alan Hedge says that for your health and to prevent computer work-related injuries, workers should take a break about once every 20 minutes. They can be microbreaks, but it’s best to stand up, stretch, and maybe walk around for a minute or two. According to Hedge, movement improves circulation, comfort, and performance while also decreasing the risk of an injury.
Tools That Help You Take Smarter Breaks
There is a lot more to taking effective breaks than knowing why they’re beneficial, what they should be like, and how often to take them. There’s also the matter of sticking to the breaks you decide to take and getting back to work when they’re over.
An app that I use from time to time when I need to be more regimented with my work/break patternis Strict Workflow. This plug-in for Chrome loosely (but without trademark violation) implements the Pomodoro Technique on your computer.
Pomodoro Technique is a method of working that separates time into work phases and break phases. So you work for X minutes and break for y minutes, and repeat. The name comes from using kitchen timers, which were often in the shape of tomatoes, to time each phase. The Chrome extension is nothing more than a timer that changes color and buzzes an alarm when either phase is up. One added benefit of using a plug-in rather than a kitchen timer is that while you’re in the work phase, you can set Strict Workflow to block you from accessing certain URLs that might distract you from work, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Other break apps run on your operating system rather than in the browser, such as Time Out for Mac. Break apps don’t just time you and lock you out of websites that prevent you from working during a work phase. They also lock you out of your entire computer during the break phase, forcing you to stop working. Your screen only unlocks after the break time you set runs out.
Break apps are commonly used by people trying to avoid repetitive stress injuries and computer-related eye strain because they all but mandate that you leave your workstation during each break. If you enjoy surfing the Web as part of your break, use a plug-in instead. Or, make a rule for yourself that you’ll only do leisure Internet surfing on a mobile device.
One more way to make sure you add breaks into your day is to get up and leave your desk every time the idle alert vibrates on your fitness tracker. Many fitness trackers now have this feature. During a window of time that you set, such as 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., if the tracker catches you sitting still for more than so many minutes, it vibrates and sometimes also flashes a message on the display. The default for most trackers is 60 minutes of idle time, but often you can customize it. Set it for 55 minutes, perhaps, to give yourself an extra few minutes to wrap up your thoughts before you get up and take a proper break.