Taking a Break: Why Making Rest a Ritual is Important

April 9, 2020

For some of us, it might seem like working from home should be ideal for productivity. Without the commute or distractions of a busy office, we have so much more time to get things done. But is that the reality?

What I realised in the first couple weeks of lockdown was that after long days at the laptop, I was flat out exhausted. Examining my routine, I noticed that I was missing something critical: taking real breaks.

One of the most counterintuitive productivity lessons I’ve learned over the years is that to work harder, we need to rest harder. Many of us know the value of a good night’s sleep, or the importance of a weekend away from email, but how many of us take daily breaks seriously?

Why Breaks Matter

If you’re a knowledge economy worker, meaning you do your job with your brain, you’re probably not used to taking real breaks. In fact, you might even feel guilty about it. Instead of getting up from the desk when we feel tired, we turn to easier tasks like checking email, or seek distraction elsewhere (ahem, Instagram).

In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that as our energy declines, we become more easily distracted. While there are different theories debating the specifics, the general consensus is that our ability to focus wanes after about 60–90 minutes.

It turns out that this natural energy cycle has been put to good use by the world’s top performers. Professor K. Anders Ericsson from Florida State University has studied elite performers over the past two decades and found the most productive had a similar habit of practicing with no interruptions for 90 minutes before taking a break.

“To maximise gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

In an evolutionary context, this makes sense. Our brains evolved to be great at sustaining attention in short bursts. We had to focus intensely on a hunt or avoiding a predator. But in today’s workplace, we tend to push ourselves beyond natural limits without noticing the downside.

So what can we do?

Take Real Breaks

The answer is quite simple: we need to balance work with rest.

Rather than trying to push through feeling tired or distracted, we need to recognise and work with our natural energy cycles.

Infusing real breaks into your schedule can make a huge difference in the quality of your energy. Our bodies are like batteries, and they need to be charged up before they hit empty.

On a practical level, just think about how you work out at the gym. No one is doing bicep curls for an hour straight. Taking rest between sets is crucial to performing at our best. Turns out our brains are no different.

By giving our brains and body a chance to rest, we can improve decision-making, gain greater self-control, and ultimately fuel our productivity.

Put It Into Practice

What types of breaks work best? It depends! Remember that productivity is personal and you’ll benefit from experimenting to see what works best for you.

The key principle to keep in mind is that you stop working during a real break.

Here are a few other tips to keep in mind:

Schedule Breaks. When we write down plans, we’re more likely to stick to them, so experiment by putting your breaks on your calendar. Studies have found social media activity peaks at 11:00am and 3:00pm. Try using those times as a proxy for when you’re most likely in need of a real break.

Do Something. It is easier to resist the temptation of checking email or scrolling through headlines if you actively do something during your break. It can be something physical, like walking up and down some stairs, or something to clear your head, like tidying a room or having a nap.

Be Tech Free. Let’s be honest. How many of reach for our phones when we go to the bathroom or make a cup of coffee? I’m guilty of it too. But staying connected doesn’t give our brains the chance to rest and reset. Experiment with tech-free breaks and you will feel the difference.

Reminders. I use a self-timer called Be Focused on my MacBook to serve gentle nudges to take a break, but you could use a normal timer too. If you have a lockdown pal, you might schedule breaks at the same time and use that to remind you and keep you accountable.