Team Productivity

How to Take an Effective Break for Better Work Balance & Productivity

Daniel Threlfall
June 18, 2019
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Not taking a break is one of the worst things you can do to yourself. You’ll erode productivity, turn out poor work, dampen creativity, diminish enjoyment, act like a monster, and eventually burn out.

As essential as it is for happy human existence, few people know how to take breaks in the right way. Obviously, everyone sleeps at regular intervals, takes vacations, and chills now and then.

But do you take breaks intentionally, knowing how and when to take them?

Consider this your invitation to take a break—and to do it in a way that will improve your happiness, productivity, and longevity.

Breaking bad: 3 breaks to avoid

Before we dive into the best ways to take a break, let’s take a moment to cover a few warnings. Here are 3 kinds of breaks you should avoid.

1. Working vacations

We’ve probably all been guilty of sneaking in some emails while playing a game with our kids or spending a week at the beach. But here’s the thing: Working while you’re on vacation means you aren’t on vacation. You’ve simply relocated your office.

A break is only a break if you stop working. You’ll benefit way more in the long run by unplugging for some true rest and relaxation than by working the few hours you rob from your vacation.

2. Sleeping the sleep of the dead in sheer exhaustion every few days.

One popular way to take a break is to virtually die every weekend. According to this model, you work like a sleep-deprived draft horse for 5 days straight, then lie listless and unconscious in your bed for the entire 62-hour weekend.

Not only does this burnout/recovery cycle steal time and energy away from the people and activities you love. Research shows it can even be counterproductive.

Instead, try taking smaller breaks during the week that enhance overall productivity and longevity rather than conspire against it.

3. Sudden or impulsive breaks

On the verge of exhaustion, the sudden breaker goes home after a rough workday and buys a ticket to Punta Cana. While this impulsive break might be much-needed and well-deserved, it may not be as enjoyable or recuperative as a trip that’s been planned with optimal refreshment in mind.

On this note, there’s no need to take a vacation that costs the equivalent of a small island. You don’t need to take a posh vacation to recover from a time of intense work.

There is, however, a better way.

Taking breaks is about two things—managing your work and managing your non-work (aka: life). Both must be held in balance. Let’s take a closer look at how to achieve this work-life balance.

Well-timed breaks: How often should you take a break?

The most important thing about taking breaks is the frequency.

There are two extremes of break-takers—those who don’t do it enough and those who do it too much. So stay in the blissful center by scheduling regular breaks.

There’s no definitive guide to how many breaks is perfect. I’m simply going to propose a list of breaks that works for me and many others and may work well for you, too.

Glancing at the list below, you may be aghast at the slackerness of it all. However, the secret to being more effective is having the energy to do your work. You won’t be energized unless you’re taking plenty of strategic breaks.

Take a break 3 times a day.

We work best in 90-minute cycles, as opposed to say, 10-hour work marathons. Maintaining this work/rest cycle is the most beneficial way to maintain peak productivity throughout the day and to avoid burnout.

At the very least, you should take at least 2 breaks during the workday and a final break in the evening before going to bed.

These breaks don’t need to be long. For example, you may want to skip out of the office for a quick coffee break between your morning work cycles. In the afternoon, try a 20-minute nap. Your final break of the day should allow you to relax before bed so you can sleep well.

Take a break every weekend.

The concept of resting every seventh day is an undeniable facet of human existence as far back as the history of civilization can ascertain.

There have been attempts to defy this built-in cycle. The French Revolutionary Calendar started in 1793 used a 10-day week. The experiment failed, and according to sources, was “was abolished because having a 10-day working week gave workers less rest.”

Whether from religious conviction, innate human nature, or just practical understanding, we work best when we use 1 day a week for intentional rest. This can give you the recharge you need to power on at work month after month and year after year.

Take a break every month.

Once a month, you’ll benefit from a 2- or 3-day break. I’ve found that my best work usually happens on a Monday after I’ve taken a satisfying 2-day weekend. Three-day weekends are even better.

If you’re used to the 2-day weekend, this is already part of your life. The trick is to use these days to recharge. Do none of your regular work. Chores can wait.

Take a break twice annually.

There are so many aspects of conventional work practice that are left over from the Industrial Revolution and outdated labor laws. Today’s tech-savvy, mobile-ready, offshore, distributed, and agile workforce functions on different principles.

One vestigial aspect of outmoded work conventions is the “vacation”—a once-a-year family event with the requisite trip to the mountains or seashore. Such a practice is ingrained into our cultural psyche. We’ve all taken a vacation like this and benefited from it.

It may, however, be more beneficial to take 2 vacations a year. These vacations don't need to be a full 2 weeks or involve a fancy getaway. Spending a few days away from the office—even if it’s a “staycation”—provides refreshing rewards, and you get it twice as often.

Take a break every 5 or 10 years.

I’m intrigued by the concept of a major, epic break every decade or so. Maybe we could avert a midlife crisis—unplug before it all hits the fan—by pulling a major vacation disappearing act.

The ancient Israelites had a practice, where every 50 years all property ownership was upended, farming ceased, and everyone took a yearlong break. Sounds radical, but apparently it worked out okay most of the time.

Since I haven’t done this (yet), I suggest it cautiously. I’ll throw it out there as more of an idea than a rule or standard. Perhaps you can build a nest egg to afford a 6-month break, forge enough trust with your employer to leave for a month or two, or make arrangements so a 4-month hiatus from your business is manageable.

How to take a break that’s actually refreshing

Now, let’s get into the actual practice of taking breaks. Sure, you’re taking a break, but what are you going to do?!

It may take some trial-and-error to figure out what works best for you. Here are a few guidelines for managing your break—whether you’re on a 10-minute pause or a 10-day vacation.

  • Don’t do your regular work. This is clutch. Completely stop working. If your job is on the computer, do something that’s not on the computer. Step away from your work environment, get some different scenery, whatever—just don’t work.
  • Play. People are wired to play, to enjoy, to have fun. This is your chance to actually enjoy yourself. Indulge your Words With Friends fancy, watch a viral cat video, or have a game of Candy Land with your toddler. Whatever your definition of “play” is, do it.
  • Find something relaxing to do. Discover what relaxes you. From bubble baths to musical instruments to pumping iron, there are a variety of techniques and activities that contribute to relaxation. Find your relaxing muse, and indulge.
  • Do something active. Limiting the amount of passive entertainment you take in is a smart move. TV is sometimes an opiate of relaxation for the short-term, but can actually diminish overall happiness if viewing exceeds 19 hours each week. Engaging in hobbies, relationship-building activities, or physical activity is actually more enjoyable and relaxing. My typical morning break is actually a 30-minute run. During my run—with neurons firing and endorphins releasing—I gain a buildup of creativity and energy that fuels the remainder of my workday.
  • Get some sleep. If you really want to enjoy your break, give yourself some sleep. A nap is an incredible way to reboot your brain and provide a remaining day’s worth of energy and enthusiasm. Using the weekend to refill your sleep deficit is also beneficial, though sleeping in late could do a number on your circadian rhythms. Whatever you do, make sure you’re getting adequate sleep.
  • Exercise your creativity. Not everyone thinks of themselves as “creative,” but the truth is, most of us have a creative spark somewhere. Creativity is simply the act of creating something, and this helps stretch the mind, even if your work of art isn’t museum-worthy. Give it a try—whether your creative outlet is painting, gardening, organizing, playing, remodeling, cooking, etc.
  • Be intellectually curious. Although your break is a time to relax, this doesn’t mean the total abdication of brain usage. In fact, as you use your brain in different ways, you’ll enhance your ability to work in your customary ways. It can be as simple as reading a book or as ambitious as taking a college- or graduate-level class.
  • Accomplish something. Don’t waste your breaks. Even though you’re not working for pay, you’re still being productive—building a relationship, organizing your home, gaining experience, and improving your life.

Smart breaks help you burn bright

Successful break-taking is the difference between people who burn out and people who burn bright. Taking the right breaks at the right time isn’t lazy—it’s smart. Without the right kind of breaks, you can bid adieu to any semblance of productive balance in your life. By breaking right, you’re bound for better times.

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