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The Practical Guide to Taking Intentional Breaks at Work

Marta Brzosko
Nov 9, 2017 · 12 min read

You can easily improve your productivity and your happiness by taking intentional breaks during your workday.

We don’t know how to stop.

“It is about the commas and full stops. On their own, they are not at all sexy. Yet, it is the commas and full stops, the pause and the breath, that transforms something unintelligible and exhausting, into something enjoyable and meaningful .” — Caroline Purkhardt, Stillness in Action

The thing with breaks is that we don’t really see them as an intrinsic part of working. Most people I know seem to approach breaks in their work day as a necessity to enable such actions as eating or smoking a cigarette.

Not many of us fully acknowledge that high quality breaks are needed to perform at our best in whatever it is we are working on. And even fewer choose to be intentional as to why, when, and how to spend their breaks.

It is also very common that we don’t know when to stop. We often realize that we needed more breaks after we have already surpassed a critical threshold of fatigue — for example, we face a professional burnout. These neglected breaks encompass a wide range of behaviors — from not taking enough short breaks during individual work days, to consistently skipping opportunities to go on holidays over the course of seasons and years.

So why are regular and conscious breaks from work so important? The answer can be complex, but it can also be brought down to one crucial concept — psychological detachment from work (a term coined by Sabine Sonnentag).

This is the state when you manage to “switch off” from thinking about your working tasks and give your brain and body a chance to reset. This psychological detachment is exactly the state we are looking for while taking an intentional break.

“Employees who feel more detached from work during off-hours are more satisfied with their lives and experience less emotional exhaustion and lower levels of other symptoms of psychological strain, such as poor sleep.” — Sabine Sonnentag, “The Psychological Detachment from Work During Leisure Time”

While acknowledging that this detachment is an essential part of the working process, it is also worth noting that too much of it will not help your work either. If you detach too much and too often, your mind simply loses the task at hand from sight. This is why I see taking breaks from work as an art in itself — an art which helps us achieve the most optimal proportion of working and resting time.

Breaks from work can take various forms — from a two-week long holiday to short breaks taken over the course of your work day. In this article I am going to focus on building the habit of taking daily breaks.

Make your break as fun as possible!

Taking intentional breaks is your responsibility

Whether you work from home, in a crowded office, or in a shop — it is entirely your responsibility to take care of your breaks.

Yes, I know it may sound challenging to accept, especially if you work an 8-hour shift in a shop by yourself, without anyone to take your place while you are away. Or in an office — you see your colleagues tamely working through the whole morning without a break, patiently waiting for the “official” lunchtime, and you may assume that you have to do the same otherwise your manager will be cross with you or another “terrible” thing might happen.

But the truth is — if you really care about giving your best to the work you do — you have to take responsibility for the breaks and find a way to organize them for yourself. Because no one apart from you will ever know when you are running low on fuel and what is the best way to restore your energy.

Your breaks will be most valuable when taken intentionally. What does that mean?

  1. You make a conscious choice of when to have a break.
  2. You know the purpose of your break.
  3. You pick activities that align with this purpose.

Let me guide you through these three steps and introduce practical tools that will help you establish your break routines easily and with pleasure. It is not difficult once you pay a bit more attention to the way you work and rest.

When do you need a break?

Some studies show that it is beneficial to start taking breaks early in the working day instead of “saving up” the off-time for later in the afternoon. For example, Better Humans just published an article on Ultradian Rhythms that suggested a break every 70 minutes. Pomodoro fans default to a break every 25 minutes.

“We found that breaks taken earlier in the day recovered more resources than breaks taken later in the day. Therefore, in order to maximize output for an entire day, an employee should front-load their day with breaks to keep resources higher as the day progresses.”— Emily M. Hunter & Cindy Wu, Give me a Better Break

While this may be true for most people, the point here is to establish the best system for yourself, based on personal observation.

Often, the tricky part is that before we know it, it is already too late for a “healthy” break. We acknowledge the need for rest when we already feel fed up with the work and bitter feelings start arising within us. This shows how important it is to catch yourself just before this moment of bitterness — while you are still enjoying your task, or at least tolerating it. Otherwise, you will need a radical rest rather than a break.

How often do you need to take breaks and how long should they be? It differs from person to person, but it also depends on the nature of your work. I found that, for me, more creative and challenging tasks require longer pauses, whereas mundane and repetitive jobs benefit from very short, but numerous breaks. Moderate physical work seems to require less breaks than computer work, but this is just my experience. The most important thing is to figure out what works for you — regardless of any established break routines that other people in your workplace might have.

In the beginning, you will need to put in some extra attention to identify your break needs. But what does that mean in practice? I understand that the generic slogan “just get in tune with your feelings” might not do the job here. There is so much going on in our heads and hearts when we work, that it is at times challenging to notice when we are becoming tired, bored, or stuck. This is why I am sharing these practical tools which have been working well for me and which are likely to work for you, too.

Start a worklog. It can be a text document open on your computer or just a piece of paper where you will note times of work and rest. Start simple, just by recording the time when you set off on a break and when you come back to work. Later on, you can start adding specific tasks that you are working on and activities during break time. This way, you gather valuable information to reflect on — how many breaks you took in a day, how long they were, and what you did. The act of writing all of this down will also automatically bring more awareness to the way you take breaks — this is why I advise a personal worklog rather than a work management software.

Use distraction as an indicator. I started seeing the feeling of distraction as my best friend, rather than my enemy. The moment I feel tempted to look at my phone for no specific reason is usually the moment when the time for a break is approaching. Distraction usually appears before exhaustion, which also helps me to acknowledge that I need to rest before it is too late. Of course, if you are one of those people who look at their phone every five minutes, your problem is possibly bigger than what I am describing. If this is the case, you may want to take a look at this guide on how to fight your smartphone addiction.

Take shorter but more frequent breaks. Many psychologists and studies emphasize the advantages of this approach. I also found it very helpful, especially in the beginning when I first started developing my own art of taking breaks. It motivates you in a very simple way — even if the work feels daunting, you always have something to look forward to. Start with taking a 5-minute break every 40 minutes of work. This way, you will very soon become an expert in observing how these short breaks affect you (use your worklog information as well!) and it will be easy to evaluate whether you actually need that many short breaks, or whether you would prefer a different system.

It may seem like a lot of effort, but this is only in the beginning. Within a few days you will become way more observant of your breaks, and in a couple of weeks you should see new habits emerging in your working routine.

What is the purpose of your break?

After you know when it is time for a break, you will want to establish what you want out of it. Why is it so important to have a clear intention? Because by figuring out the intention, you naturally become more aware of what you need at that moment.

One general purpose we probably all have in taking breaks is to do something different. If you work physically, you will likely want to sit down, relax, and enjoy a cup of coffee or a snack. If you spend most of the time in front of the computer, I guess you will want to take your eyes off the screen and move around a little bit. If your work means being surrounded by people in a busy coffee shop, you will want some time alone, and if you are a freelancer working by yourself from home, you might enjoy hearing someone’s voice on the phone. Changing circumstances is the key to taking breaks for most people.

Start by asking yourself: how can you invite this change in your working day? Pumping up your blood pressure by exercising? Focusing on a self-help article for a moment rather than on the report you have been writing? Talking to somebody about your day?

Before going on a break, take 30 seconds to focus on what you need — it will make it much easier to decide what exactly you are going to do during your time-off. You may also take another 30 seconds to plan for your future self, who will be coming back to work, and prepare the workspace — just to make it easier to go back to your tasks later on. It can be very simple — quick organizing of your desk, opening the document that you are going to work on, or writing the first sentence of the email that you really need to send today.

The point is to prepare the ground for smooth landing in order to continue the work when you are back from your break.

How to design your Perfect Break — practical ideas

“Our first prescriptive finding is that breaks are more effective when spent on a preferred activity. When employees engage in an activity that they prefer, resources are recovered more effectively because the employees choose the activities that they desire to do and thus such engagement does not require additional mental energy.” — Emily M. Hunter & Cindy Wu

Now that you know what you are looking for in your break, it will be much easier to pick activities that serve the purpose. But before we go there, let’s make something very clear:

You want the activities during your break to bring you joy.

It is not about doing what you “should” do according to some theories — like, for example, you “should” exercise during your break, because you spend most of the working time in front of the computer. This is not how it works. More important here is doing something that is really enjoyable for you. Otherwise, your break doesn’t serve its purpose.

I will share with you a list of ideas for break activities, but before that, I want to tell you about one of the best breaks at work that I have had recently. It happened when I worked side-by-side with my friend Sílvia in her farmhouse in Portugal. The house in the countryside allowed us to have amazing breaks in the garden or by the swimming pool. Yet, the most stimulating and refreshing break I experienced was rather simple, and it only took 10 minutes.

Before I got up from my chair, I set myself up for when I would be coming back from the break. I typed the first sentence of a new paragraph and scrolled down the screen on my computer, so that the first thing I would see after returning to work would be a blank page, asking me for ideas.

Then I went on to check how Sílvia was doing with her work. We told each other what we were currently writing about and expressed excitement about it. This was a brief, but very uplifting human interaction, which felt very different from my previous ninety minutes of facing the computer screen in solitude.

Afterwards, I proceeded to make myself a cup of coffee with a coffee machine I didn’t know (I had arrived in this house only a couple of hours earlier). It was therefore not an automatic activity — which, for me, making coffee usually is. It was easy enough to figure out how the machine works, but at the same time it employed the part of my brain responsible for learning new things and exploring, rather than just going on autopilot.

After the coffee was ready, I felt like moving my body in a way that brings me pleasure. Sílvia had Mozart on and I could hear the music from the kitchen. So I spent a couple of minutes indulging in dancing, while also focusing on positive thoughts that were appearing in my head. I felt like I was writing a good piece of text — I was in this beautiful place overlooking Portuguese hills, and I focused on appreciative thoughts and taking pleasure from dancing.

When I got back to my computer I felt rested and refreshed, and I realized that with this break I managed to get my mind off work completely. I was also quite surprised to see that only 10 minutes had passed, yet I managed to engage in a couple of activities that helped me restore my energy for further work.

Ideas for your break

What I learned from this experience is that, for me, there are three key components that make up a perfect break.

1) Human interaction (talking to Sílvia)

2) Putting my mind into the learning/exploring mode (using a machine I have never used before)

3) Engaging with physical reality in an enjoyable way (dancing)

The ideas for your break that I suggest below are organised according to these three components. Try them out as they are or use them as an inspiration to come up with your own activities.

Parting message

What if an intentional break just doesn’t happen sometimes? Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Observe this even more closely, so you can notice the difference between work days with proper breaks and the days without them. Seeing this difference should motivate you even more to become a Master of Intentional Breaks.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Sílvia Bastos

Marta Brzosko

Written by

Self-discovery writer. Let’s walk the path together: https://afoot.life/

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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