Breaks are important for every conceivable reason. If you fail to take breaks, you’ll erode productivity, turn out poor work, dampen creativity, diminish enjoyment, act like a monster, and eventually burn out. Not taking a break is one of the worst things you can do to yourself.
As essential as it is for happy human existence, few people know how to take breaks in the right way. Maybe you didn’t even know there was a “right way” to take breaks. Obviously, everyone sleeps at regular intervals, takes vacations, and chills now and then. But do we take our breaks intentionally, knowing how and why to take them? Are breaks just a cultural convention, or worse, a sign of weakness? Or are breaks an inherent and essential component of our mortal sojourn?
We all know intuitively that breaks are important. What’s not so common knowledge is how to take these breaks in a way that will make us become more productive, create better work, enhance relationships, and improve our entire life.
Consider this as your invitation to take a break — and to do it in a way that will improve your happiness, productivity, and longevity.
Say no to two extremes.
There are at least two break-taking extremes that you should avoid.
- The extreme of the idler. On one end of the spectrum is the person who shirks work as much as possible.
- The extreme of the workaholic. A workaholic is “a person who works compulsively at the expense of other pursuits.” We can better enjoy life if we enjoy, not just our work, but the things that our work enables — a lifestyle, rest, and relationships. In order to rest adequately, we must be able to stop working at some point.
Breaking Bad: Four Bad Examples of Breaks
This article will explain how you should implement breaks into your life and work. With that in mind, I want to give you a few warnings about four wrong kinds of breaks.
- Working vacations. A break is only a break if you stop working. We’ve probably all been guilty of sneaking in some emails while we’re playing a game with our kids, or spending a few minutes working while on vacation. I say “guilty” because we feel like we’re cheating or violating the integrity of a break. In a sense, we are cheating. We know that we’re supposed to be relaxing, not working. Somehow, we can’t avoid the siren song of work-work-work. Working while you’re on “vacation” means that you aren’t on vacation. A “working vacation” is an oxymoron. You’ve simply relocated your office. In many cases, it’s essential that we spend some time on work, even while we’re off work. As much as possible, however, avoid this type of arrangement. You’ll benefit way more in the long run by resting than you will by working the few hours that you robbed from your vacation.
- 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 five days straight, then lie listless and unconscious in your bed for the entire 62-hour weekend. This is burnout/recovery cycle is unnecessary and counterproductive. Instead, it’s better to take smaller breaks during the week that enhance overall productivity and longevity rather than conspire against it.
- Sudden or impulsive breaks. One of the most common breaks is the sudden break. On the verge of exhaustion, the sudden breaker goes home after a workday straight from one of Dante’s seven circles, and buys a ticket to Punta Cana. This impulsive break is much-needed and well-deserved. On the other hand, it is ill-conceived, and not as enjoyable or as productive as it can be for recuperative purposes. Regular breaks are better than big fat sudden breaks. On this note, there’s no need to take a vacation that costs the equivalent of a small island. These are awesome, and I too, desire to stay in five-star splendor with an army of concierges waiting to offer me a sip of my limonada on a Bali beach. Here’s the thing, though. You don’t need to take a posh vacation to recover from a time of intense work. If we do the workaholic thing, we’re going to feel as if we deserve a killer vacation. There is, however, a better way.
- Uberlong sabbaticals. Burnout begets interminable breaks. Such interminable breaks are not necessary, because burnout is not necessary. If you take regular breaks, you will avoid burnout, and don’t need yearlong trips to exotic locales to learn from yogis, gurus, or jedis.
Taking breaks is about two things — managing one’s work, and managing one’s non-work. Both must be held in balance. Here’s how to achieve this balance.
Well-Timed Breaks: When should you take a break?
The most important thing about taking breaks is the frequency. Remember, there are two extremes of break-takers — those who don’t do it enough, and those who do it too much. The way to stay in the blissful center is take breaks regularly. It’s hard to do! The workaholic has to discipline himself or herself to stop, unplug, and cease doing! For the driven Type A’s among us, ceasing work is countercultural and maybe even uncomfortable.
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, works for 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 in one’s work is being energized to do that work. You won’t be energized unless you’re taking plenty of strategic breaks.
- Take a break three times a day. You should take at least two breaks during the workday, and a final break in the evening before going to bed. We work best in 90 minute cycles, as opposed to say, 10-hour work marathons. Maintaining this cycle of work/rest is the most beneficial way to maintain peak productivity throughout the day and to avoid burnout. 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 twenty-to-thirty minute nap. Your final break of the day should allow you to relax before bed to such an extent that 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 ten-day week. The experiment failed, and according to sources was “was abolished because having a ten-day working week gave workers less rest.” Even ancient Judaism (Sabbath), Babylonia (Sapattum), and the Chinese civilization were founded upon a seven-day cycle. Whether from religious conviction, innate human nature, or just practical understanding, we work best when we use one day in seven for intentional rest. Stopping every seventh day is the most important type of break you should have in your life. It is possible to work hard month-after-month and year-after-year as long as you stop working every seventh day.
- Take a break every month. Once a month, you’ll benefit from a two- or three-day break. If you’re used to the two-day weekend, this is already part of your life. Use these two days to recharge; do none of your regular work. I’ve found that my best work usually happens on Monday, after I’ve taken a satisfying two-day weekend. Three-day weekends are even better.
- Take a break twice annually. There are so many aspects of conventional work practice that are actually just silly leftovers from the industrial revolution and outdated labor laws. Today’s tech-savvy, mobile-ready, offshore, distributed, and agile workforce functions on a 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 such a vacation, and we’ve all benefited from them. It may, however, be more beneficial to take two vacations a year. No, these vacations don't need to be a full two weeks, but you can still have a vacation or “staycation” if you prefer such an alteration. The twice-annual vacation according to this model should be a few days break. It provides refreshing rewards, and you get it twice as often.
- Take a break every five or ten years. 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. 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. Perhaps you can build a nest egg to afford a six-month break. Perhaps you can forge enough trust with your employer to leave for a month or two, or to place your business in such a situation that a four-month hiatus is manageable. It’s just an idea. The ancient Israelites had a practice, where every fifty 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. Although I’ve never taken such a daring step of adventure, the plans are in the works. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Smart Breaks: What should you do during your break?
Now, lets get into the actual practice of taking breaks. Sure, you’re taking a break, but what are you going to do?! Some of us, myself included, feel kind of like a small child learning to walk — uncertain about what to do or how to go about it. Sometimes, after a hard-driving ten-hour workday, I come to the end of the day unable to sleep because I’ve been at 6,000 RPM all day long. Here are a few guidelines for managing your break — whether you’re on a ten-minute pause or a ten-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.
- 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, according to studies from Media Dynamics. Engaging in hobbies, relationship building activities, or physical activity is actually more enjoyable and relaxing. My typical morning break is actually a thirty-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.
- 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.
- Get some sleep. If you really want to enjoy your break, give yourself some sleep. Previously, I suggested taking a nap. 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 even if it’s not a very bright spark. Give creativity a try — whether it’s painting, gardening, organizing, playing, doing remodeling, cooking, etc. Creativity is simply the act of creating something, and such activity helps to stretch the mind in areas that need to be stretched.
- 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 will enhance your ability to work in your customary ways. Some people actually take college or master’s level courses during their breaks, and find it a source of incredible satisfaction.
- 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.
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.