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Productivity’s Secret Superhero: 5 Ways to Take a Better Break

August 18, 2020

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

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Episode 42 is all about the power of the pause. Taking Breaks. As in NOT working for a period of time during your day.

Now – you might scratching your head and thinking, wait – isn’t this a podcast about productivity? Shouldn’t we just power through and get things done? Aren’t breaks just a form of wasting time or being lazy? What if I don’t have TIME to take breaks?

If you’re thinking, “Thanks but No, Thanks Anna – I don’t need breaks to be productive, I encourage you to stick with me and keep an open mind. 

Chances are – whether you’re working from home or reporting to an office, you’re just not taking enough breaks during your workday. Both settings present their own unique challenges, and that’s why in this episode I’m giving a refresher on WHY breaks actually make us MORE productive, plus a buffet of 5 super easy breaks that you can start taking today. 


Regardless of whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, there’s one thing we all have in common.

2:55 P.M.

Research has uncovered that 2:55 p.m. is the lowest energy point in the day for most workers. In fact, the whole afternoon is one big mess. 

In the afternoon, we’re more likely to make mistakes, more likely to be in a traffic accident, more likely to be dishonest, and we’re even less likely to wash our hands! 

In terms of productivity, afternoons are just the worst.

If you’ve ever slogged through a complicated project while your eyes are crossing and you’re chugging coffee, then you know exactly what I mean. 

Taking a break – especially a restorative break – can help keep you on your toes, and keep the mistakes at bay. 

And while most of us are at our worst during the post-lunch hours, we actually need breaks all throughout the day. 

One study actually found that the ideal break length for peak productivity is 17 minutes for every fifty-two minutes you work! So that’s 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off! And to think that back in the day when I worked on the J. Crew Sales Floor selling button down shirts and chinos that I got ONE 15 minute break in a FOUR hour shift! 

Most of us just don’t take enough breaks during the day – and our work suffers as a result. 

Now you might be thinking “Hmm.. 17 minutes every hour is a little much – I’ve got work to do.

Well –  here’s the thing. On average, in an 8-hour workday, people are only productive for about THREE hours of the day. THREE. Out of 8. 

Time is lost in transitions. 

Time is lost with interruptions and spent regaining focus – it takes around 29 minutes to regain your focus every time you experience an interruption by the way… 

Time is lost in meetings that could have been emails.

Time is lost managing emails. In fact, at the current rate of information being zipped around the interwebs – it takes the typical American knowledge worker at least 90 minutes a day just to process NEW info coming in via email, DMs, Slack and whatever other newfangled channels people are using these days. 

In addition to the lost time – we are humans just aren’t programmed to concentrate for 8 hours nonstop. Without breaks, we start to suffer from decision fatigue, lack of focus, and not to mention damaged eyes from all the screen staring. 

When we take breaks, we make better decisions, we have more creative ideas and innovative solutions, and we can stay focused for longer periods of time. 

Taking breaks strengthen our short term and our associative memory – that’s the memory that helps you put a face with a name, by the way. 

When you’re so deep into a project, it can be easy to lose sight of what you’re actually working toward. You get lost in the weeds. Taking a break and stepping away for a bit helps you re-focus on the bigger picture.

So – if you’re hearing all of these great benefits, and you want to start making breaks a part of your day – here are five simple types of breaks, inspired by the book When by Daniel Pink, that you can start taking today:

Those five breaks are

  1. Micro breaks

  2. Moving breaks

  3. Nature breaks

  4. Social breaks

  5. And mental breaks

Micro Breaks

First up – Microbreaks 

>> Something is better than nothing at all. If we stay head down in a single task for too long, it’s possible to lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve. Short breaks help us maintain focus and reactivate our commitment to a goal. And frequent short breaks are more effective than occasional ones. Something is better than nothing at all.

Three ways to take Microbreaks

  • Use the 20-20-20 rule. Before you start a task, set a timer. Then, every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This rests your eyes and improves your posture – both of which can fight fatigue.

  • Take a water walk. If you keep a giant water jug on your desk, get a smaller one. When you take a walk to refill it, you get hydration, motion and restoration.

  • Stand & Stretch: Stand up, move around. Stretch, wiggle. Sit back down. The end.

Moving Breaks

Next up, Moving Breaks.

>> Moving is better than sitting still. One study on breaks found that walking around for five minutes each hour can boost energy levels, sharpen your focus, improve your mood throughout the day and reduce feelings of fatigue in the late afternoon. These short bursts of energy can be more effective than a single thirty-minute walk – so, consider carving out mini-bursts of physical activity during your day. 

Three ways to move?

  • Take a 5 minute walk once an hour. Set a timer, repeat.

  • Do some yoga. If you’re in an office setting, google office yoga for ways to get the benefits without going into full downward dog in your pencil skirt. 

  • Finally – drop and give me two. Two pushups. Just two. Do this once a day until 2 feels super easy. Then up it to four. Who knows – maybe you’ll be busting out 50 pushups at once by this time next year without breaking a sweat!

Nature Breaks

The third type of break is a Nature Break

>> Get some fresh air. Taking a break outside may replenish us the most. People who take short walks outdoors return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk indoors. If you’re stuck inside, even looking out the window or being near indoor plants can be restorative. If you’re in the South during the summer – like I am here in Louisiana, consider stepping outside for a few minutes with a glass of ice water. Take a few deep breaths, and head back inside before you sweat to death and need to take a shower break.

Three nature breaks:

  • Take a walk around the block. 

  • Sit on a bench outside your office, take a book. 

  • If it’s storming outside, or your office has no windows, look at some indoor plants. Put a few little succulents on your desk. Anything green and living can be restorative. 

I once worked in this miserable building, where my office was a converted conference room. My office itself had no windows, and the hallways on my floor had no windows. So if I wanted to see any kind of sunshine, I had either go in someone else’s office, or take the elevator all the way down from the 10th floor to the first floor. To bring some nature inside, I had a small plant in my office named Robert. He was as helpful as he could be, but nothing was better than heading outside for a quick walk and to get some real sunshine.

Social Breaks

The fourth type of break is a Social Break

>> A break with a buddy is better than going solo. If you have a preference for introversion, alone time can definitely be rejuvenating. I totally get that.  However, research on restorative breaks points to the benefit of spending time with others – especially when we can choose who we’re spending time with. Social breaks are shown to reduce stress, physical strain, and job turnover. 

Three ways to take social breaks:

  • Call someone you haven’t talked with in a while to catch up, or write someone a handwritten note. Gratitude is very restorative.

  • Schedule a regular walk with colleagues you like. If you work from home – find another work from home warrior and schedule a phone chat walk and talk once or twice a week. Even better if they’re an accountability partner and you can check in on each other’s goals and progress.

  • Go grab a coffee, or another delicious afternoon beverage, and bring back one for a friend. Surprise a buddy stuck, or a work from home friend who lives nearby and chat for a bit. 

Mental Breaks

And finally – the last type of restorative break – Mental Breaks:

Give your brain a rest. Concentration and deep work is tough – that’s why it’s often the most valued, most important work that we do. This type of break helps you clear out the cobwebs, make subconscious connections that help with problem solving, and allow your mind to wander – which is so important for our creativity and innovation. 

Three ways to take a mental break:

  • Meditate. Google guided meditation for some ideas, or try an app like Calm or Headspace.

  • Try some controlled breathing, inhale and take a deep breath, exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – and repeat for a total of 10 breaths. 

  • Finally – this is your permission to lighten up and watch funny dog videos, read a comic strip, send a meme to your BFF and have a laugh.

So far we’ve covered why we need to take breaks, 5 different types of breaks you can take, and 15 different examples of those 5 breaks, ranging from 20 seconds with the 20-20-20 rule, to a 17 minute walk, to however long that funny dog video is you have pulled up. 

Go Tech Free

But – regardless of how you take your break – there’s one rule that rules them all. And that’s to Go Tech Free. Eek – I know… what are breaks for if not for checking instagram. But here’s the thing… 

This will probably not surprise you at all, whenever we take a break from our work – we often try to multitask that break with something else. Checking email, checking social media. Discussing a work issue. Whenever your break still includes work – or tech – it doesn’t register as restorative to your brain. It still counts as work – so you don’t get the true benefit of taking the break. 

Whenever people think of breaks as wasted time – a break that’s multi-tasked with work is definitely wasted time. You don’t step back into work any more refreshed than when you stepped out. So Challenge yourself to take a true tech-free, work-free break for the full restorative benefits.

You can DO it – I KNOW you can. 

And – while there’s no such thing as the perfect break – if you combine all five of these breaks at once, that might look like

  • Take a short walk, with a friend, outside, to talk about something besides work – and consider leaving your phone behind.

Breaks – the underrated superhero of our days, plus 15 different breaks that you can start taking today. Just like Eliza said to Mr. Non-stop Alexander Hamilton in Act 2 of Hamilton, Take a break! 

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