Taking Breaks At Work In 2021: The Secret To Productivity and Well-being When You Work From Home (AN ULTIMATE GUIDE)

Worklife

We've all sat through weary-eyed, leg-cramping power sessions at our desk, chasing a deadline, or busy dealing with endless tasks, emails, and meetings (now zoom meetings) back to back. 

If you are one of the millions moving to working remotely in 2021, you are probably working longer hours, putting in more continual desk time, and without the daily commute, more sedentary than ever.

In a recent report released from the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers discovered that workers are working close to an hour more per day during lockdowns than they were before the pandemic. 

So, how do we navigate the new normal and restore our productivity, focus, and well-being? 

The secret is to take regular breaks at work

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes...including you.”
― Anne Lamott

If you listen to the experts, breaks are essentially little "interventions" that help us gracefully and productively manage the daily grind with rationale and perspective intact.

This complete guide covers all the nitty-gritty about taking breaks at work.

You will learn the importance of taking breaks, how to take effective breaks, what to do on your daily breaks to truly relax and boost your productivity, and a step-by-step guide on how to design a system so that you can easily make breaks a regular part of your routine and stick to it.

Sounds good?

Let’s dive in.

Why We Need to Get Serious About Taking Breaks At Work

burnout twoman stressed at work

Yes, it's tempting to just want to "power through" one more hour of work. You don’t want to take breaks because you think you can get more done. But did you?

One day you started realizing that your neck, wrist, and back are hurting, despite being an otherwise health-conscious, active lifestyle advocate.

Whether you’re an employee or project stakeholder, hours spent sitting at a desk and staring at a screen puts a strain on your productivity and health.

Take a look.


Our Bodies Suffer

There is a lot of pressure to sit in the office - it’s how you get your work done. 

Now that you are probably spending more days working at home, where you don’t need to get up and walk around to talk to people. You are not walking to meetings, you don’t even need to commute. 

You are more exposed to the danger of sitting too much.

Researchers have linked sitting for prolonged periods of time to a significantly higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and depression, as well as muscle and joint problems. 

Toni Yancey, a professor of health services at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, describes the process: "Sitting shuts down electrical activity in the legs. It makes the body less sensitive to insulin, causes calorie-burning to plummet, and slows the breakdown of dangerous blood fats, lowering 'good' HDL cholesterol."

What's noteworthy is that:

A recent science advisory from the American Heart Association has shown that going to the gym, running, or your favorite fitness class, doesn’t cancel out the negative impact of time spent being sedentary.

Radical as it might sound, you can't undo sitting.

While working out and fitness are important if your goal is to maintain or get in the best shape of your life, it cannot reverse the harmful effects of sitting for the rest of the day and moving very little within your office or home.

So, what's the solution?

To take regular breaks to get up and move.

Our Brains Depleted

Despite all the physical damage, what happens to your brain when you don't take breaks: Your productivity goes downhill...before you notice.

Brain scientists are very aware of the fact that prolonged work is depleting. The "fading" that we experience creates declines in mood and performance.

“We don’t know exactly what in the brain gets depleted, but when you do a cognitively demanding task, it operates as though there’s a ‘mental fuel’ that gets burned up.”
– William Helton, PhD, a professor of human factors and applied cognition at George Mason University

Recent studies show that those who give in to some kind of break once an hour perform better than those who just keep at it without a break.

Mid-Task Break Improves Global Integration of Functional Connectivity in Lower Alpha Band
Neuro-scientists tested one session includes four successive blocks with visual oddball tasks (session 1) whereas a mid-task break was introduced in the middle of four task blocks in the other session (session 2). On the left of session 1, the black dots indicate those nodes that have a significant block effect, exhibiting that the functional connectivity network had more segregated and less integrated representation under mental fatigue, and a mid-task break can significantly mitigate the effect. (Source: Front Hum Neurosci. 2016 )

So, if you want to get more done, make sure you are taking regular breaks during your workday.


The Power of Taking Breaks

Woman happy and relaxed after taking a break
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Many people experience "productivity breakthroughs'' after going against their instincts to meet a deadline by taking a pause. We emerge refreshed and more resilient after getting up for both brain and movement breaks.

So, how do breaks help us? 

Here's a quick look at the magic taking breaks does to our brain:

  • Improved focus.
  • Boosted creativity and problem-solving abilities
  • Better information retention
  • Improved productivity
  • Prevents decision fatigue
  • Reevaluate goals and seeing the bigger picture
  • Better stress management

Besides the juicy benefits that breaks have on our brains, now what if you can double the benefits? 

It’s simple - add movement to your breaks.

For those who get the least amount of physical activity, replacing a half hour of sitting time with physical activity was associated with up to a nearly 50% reduction in mortality, according to a new study from the American Cancer Society.

Breaks are a great opportunity to incorporate movement into our workdays to combat the setbacks of a sedentary lifestyle. 

Take a look at the most important benefits of movement breaks:

  • Improve energy levels
  • Boost mood and relieve stress
  • Strengthen weakened muscles and bones
  • Reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  • Reduces the risk of injury
  • Boost memory and focus

It's pretty clear that taking breaks is a powerful tool that can make us better at what we do, feel physically better, and happier. 

High-performing people understand the power of taking breaks and know how to take advantage of effective breaks to become more productive while keeping their health in check.

So, how do you harness the power of taking breaks, so that you come back fully recharged both physically and mentally?

Continue reading to find out the strategy that actually works.


The Secret to Taking Effective Breaks at Work 

Although taking breaks at work might seem even harder when we are working from home and being "accessible" every waking minute, understanding how the brain works and taking the initiative to establish boundaries for effective breaks has quickly become the secret weapon to avoid burnout, improved productivity and personal well-being.

“Breaks are crucial,” says Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. “If you’re working day after day and not letting up, you will burn out.”


Understanding the Productivity Cycle 

Our focus, energy, and motivation moves in "waves". 

Those cycles are known as biological rhythms.

the ultradian performance rhythm
Source: Infra-Low Frequencies and Ultradian Rhythms - By David Kaiser PhD - April 10, 2013 1


Productivity cycle refers to working for evenly spaced periods of time, and taking breaks at that exact rhythm.

Understanding your productivity cycle can help you take more effective breaks at work. 

"Working for 75 to 90 minutes takes advantage of the brain’s two modes: learning or focusing and consolidation,” says MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Bob Pozen

According to Pozen's findings, taking a 15-minute break following a productivity chunk allows our brains to better consolidate and retain information. Pozen's findings echo the findings of research done by Tony Schwartz, the author of The Power of Full Engagement, showing that humans naturally move from full focus to fatigue every 90 minutes


How often should I take a break? And for how long?

There are many studies that have looked at optimal break schedules. Here are some of the most popular, science-supported methods which you could integrate into a workday:

  • Once Every Hour

Taking a 5 to 15 minutes break at the top of every hour like clockwork can get you ahead of the 75-minute fatigue curve. Plus, a top-of-the-hour break is easy to remember and execute.

  • Every 75 to 90 minutes

Following the brain's "full-focus-to-fatigue" cycle, you can ride productivity waves all the way to the end before refreshing with a break for 5 to 15 minutes.

  • Pomodoro Technique

One of the most common ways to implement a schedule with breaks. Start with a to-do list and timer. After setting your timer for 25 minutes, focus on one task at a time until the timer buzzes. You will mark what you've completed before taking a non-negotiable 5-minute break. Enjoy a 30-minute break for every four pomodoros.

the pomodoro technique


  • The 52:17 Method

Work in increments of 52 minutes before 17-minute breaks.

As you can see, all of these techniques essentially follow the same pattern of riding productivity peaks, followed by small breaks - typically 5 to 15 minutes. 

In doing this, we can build up new productivity cycles every 60 to 90 minutes without succumbing to the fatigue that naturally comes without breaks. 

However, how often you should take a break depends on the nature of your work and how your brain functions. Everyone is different. The key is to experiment and find your own rhythm.


Take breaks The Right Way

The Don'ts

Research shows that taking the wrong type of breaks could actually increase fatigue and steal your productivity, such as mindless snacking, online shopping, and mindlessly scrolling on social media. 

It's also tempting to do some work during your breaks, such as checking your email or the message from your manager. It’s a no-no.

If these are the only breaks you are taking, keep reading to find out how to take breaks the right way.


The Do's

To reap the maximum benefits of a break, you need to give your brain a chance to relax and your body a chance to recharge. 

The best practice is to incorporate activities into your breaks that bring you joy and positive vibes. 

For example, a short breathing exercise during your break can help lower blood pressure and relieve stress.


9 break ideas that boost your health and productivity

  • Simple stretches and mobilization exercises to relax and keep your body functioning, ease stiffness from sitting too long, and prevent injuries. 
Woman stretching neck while working at home
  • (Home) office-friendly exercises to wake your sleeping muscles up, boost your energy level, and help you gain focus. Studies have shown that a moderate level of cardio activity can boost creativity and productivity for up to two hours.
  • A short walk outside. Despite the physical benefits, being physically detached from work, and getting some fresh air in your lungs improves your mood and lowers stress.
brain activity after exercise
  • Breathing/meditative exercise helps your body relax and is one of the most powerful ways to relax your brain and regulating your stress response.
  • Nap. If you are working from home, or work at a progressive company that affords you the luxury of taking a nap in the office. Take advantage of that. In several studies, a nap of as short as 10 minutes can improve your cognitive function and decrease sleepiness and fatigue. Having that afternoon slump? Nap it off. Be aware that naps that exceed 20 minutes might leave you feeling groggy and disoriented. It is best to limit your naps to 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Exercise your eyes to prevent eye strain, you can try the 20-20-20 rule.
20-20-20 rule to prevent eye strain
  • Healthy snacking. Replenish your brain with the right fuel. Here's a look at some of the best snacks to eat at your desk
  • Talk to someone. Chat with a colleague or a friend (who is also on a break), grab a coffee down the street, take your dog on a walk, call your mom, or play with your kids if you are a parent working from home.
Chatting and laughing with colleague during a break
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
  • Laugh. Yes, go ahead and watch some funny videos of cats. According to a recent study, laugh breaks can improve your performance.

While it can be fun to work some creative activities into breaks, the goal remains the same if you want to maximize cognitive and physical boosts: 

1. Take your mind off work to give your brain a chance to truly relax;

2. Get up from your chair and move around to combat the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle.


The step-by-step guide to make breaks a regular part of your workday

If you've read this far, you probably have a pretty good idea of why you need to take breaks, what to do on your breaks and have a strong intention to do so. 

Now you're thinking, "but how do I implement it to my workday and make it a habit?"

It is surprisingly hard for most people to make the change to integrate breaks into the day, even when it's something that they intend to achieve.

The problem is that most people fail to follow the instructions that they give themselves.

Let's be honest, it's way easier to sit on your chair and mindlessly scroll through your phone, OR, you could be so deep in your work that you don't have extra mental energy to come up with stuff to do or even think about taking a break.

This is when you need a system to, sort of, automate that part of your day. It's like having your coach showing up at your door every day at the same time to keep you accountable.

So, how do you design a system that helps you achieve this goal?

The perfect behavior-modification technique for this case is what psychologists call implementation intentions. It is a self-regulatory strategy that has been found to be particularly effective when it comes to situations where there may be immediate costs but significant long-term benefits, such as taking breaks at work. 

An implementation intention supports our goal intention by setting out in advance when/where and how I will achieve this goal.

implementation intention
Source: THINKINGLIFTER

Here's how :

Step 1: Specify your goal. For example, "I will take a break every hour at work".

Step 2: Schedule them in your calendar (the When). Alternatively, if you prefer to work in "sprints", set a timer on your phone or computer. You can set a timer for 30-minutes, go with the 52:17 method, or whichever time is optimal for you.

Step 3: Plan out your break activities ahead to avoid needing to "decide" what to do when it's break time, such as "Go for a 5-minute walk at 3 pm" (the How)

Step 4: Follow the cues you have outlined in your plan


As a result, your goal will be performed automatically and efficiently, without conscious effort. 

What we love the most about this technique is that it frees our cognitive resources for other brain-heavy tasks like study & work, since we don't need to think about when to take a break and what to do for that break. It's already planned!

Once you take the first step of planning it out, the automated system that you designed helps to remove the hesitation and deliberation when you want to take a break. It's like putting your breaks on auto-pilot.

And...if you don't want to go through the hassle of manually scheduling breaks into your workday, or waste your mental energy on coming up with what to do for your breaks, there are tools that are designed to make your life easier.

Follow along.



“Are there any tools that can help me take breaks?”

We are glad that you asked. Yes, there are.

At StretchMinder, we are obsessed with great tools that make life easier. After all, that's what we believe what technology should be - making people's lives easier.

Here are 7 hand-picked tools that help you take breaks:

  • StretchMinder - A unique blend of break reminder and 7-minute workout. From putting your breaks on auto-pilot with pre-scheduled breaks to providing guided activity routines including Movement, Breathing & Walking exercises, the app takes care of it all with just a few clicks. It is perfect for those who want the easiest way to build a habit of taking breaks and moving more throughout the day. 
  • Focus To-Do - A app that brings Pomodoro Technique and To-Do List into one place, you can capture and organize tasks into your to-do lists, start focus timer and focus on work & study, set reminders for important tasks and errands, check the time spent at work.
  • Focus Booster - A simple and lightweight timer that automatically records each session. The app features a Pomodoro timer, a mini timer, customizable session lengths, report exports, and manual time entry. 
  • Flow Time - A Chrome Extension to boost your productivity. It works as a Pomodoro-like timer & website blocker that boosts your productivity by making your mind go into the state of flow faster.
  • Google - If you want to keep things simple, just type "set a timer for X minutes" into Google and set your timer.
  • Your calendar - Schedule your break slots and set reminders on your calendar to repeat every day.
  • Your phone - Set a timer with the native timer tool and repeat every day diligently.
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Change Is Coming: Final Thoughts on Taking Productivity Breaks

“People know breaks are helpful, but we don’t always take them.”
– Emily Hunter, PhD, I/O psychologist at Baylor University

It can be hard to get over the mental and practical hurdles of taking breaks during the day.

However by now, we hope you take home some actionable tips that can help to achieve your goal. (And remember to take a break after reading this blog post!)

It's time to make a change.

The next break you take could be your breakthrough to better productivity, health, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. 

Have you mastered the art of taking breaks regularly throughout the day? How does taking breaks affect your productivity?

If you're a break maestro, share how you've cultivated productivity-boosting break schedules.

We'd love to hear about your break-time hacks and tips in the comments!

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