The how (and why) of making regular breaks part of your daily routine
We get it. You're covered up at work without a second to spare for self-care.
But gulping down your lunch in front of your computer like you're literally chained to your desk (hopefully not the case) isn't the answer. Skipping breaks leads down the path to serious stress, and you don't want to end up there, do you?
Of course you don't.
But I'm too busy to take breaks
We've all been there. And if you're in the habit of working your 9-to-5 straight through, your brain's going to protest a lot, especially early on. When you find yourself trying to make excuses as to why you don't have time for breaks during your workday (and you will), try to think of downtime as mental food to fuel and heal your overworked mind.
So, what does science say about breaks and stress management, anyway?
Breaks, or as the Scientific American calls them, "mental-downtime", help replenish mental resources and keep stress and exhaustion at bay. And not only does downtime help keep your brain from burning out, but a study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign cited in Science Daily also suggests that breaks restore motivation for long-term goals.
The same study also had results indicating that prolonged attention (ahem, trying to concentrate on your work nonstop) hinders performance.
Furthermore, according to a study from Princeton University, breaks are essential to preventing decision fatigue, as making frequent decisions wears down your willpower and reasoning ability.
So take a break, already. Your mind (and your colleagues) will thank you.
How can I make time for breaks in my routine?
1. Start with your lunch break.
When you eat in front of the computer, you aren't paying attention to what goes in your mouth, or what's on the screen. So commit to taking at least 15 minutes to get up from your desk, and eat somewhere else. If the weather's agreeable, get outside for some sunlight and fresh air.
Not sure that getting away from your desk for lunch matters?
In a survey by Tork cited at Forbes.com 90% of staff said a lunch break helped them feel refreshed and ready to return to work. The employees surveyed were also more likely to say they're as effective and efficient as they'd like to be.
2. Aim for short breaks.
Keep them limited to a set time and don't go over. Set a timer and step away from what you're working on, however you can.
Whether you’d rather give yourself a little quiet time with a mental wellbeing app like Foundations to relax your body, muscle by muscle, or head to the break room for some conversation, the point here is to disconnect.
Don't think (or talk) about what you're working on.
Let your conscious mind relax and make connections randomly (sometimes this is called "diffuse thinking") and you might come up with a solution to a problem that’s been bugging you all day. You can learn more about diffuse thinking from author Barbara Oakley at Farnam Street's blog, here.
3. Let your mind do what it wants.
What do we mean by this, exactly? Basically, that if your mind wanders, or wants to daydream, give yourself a break and let it.
Don't resist your train of thought, instead, try to observe what's happening without judgement—in Berkeley University's Greater Good magazine, neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp recommends this technique to make thoughts "less sticky" and get back to the task at hand, sooner.
On the other hand, if you're in the zone, don't worry about delaying your break by a few minutes or hours.
When your focus wanes, seize the moment and get in that mental downtime—especially on busy and high-pressure days. Remember, the science doesn't lie.
Forcing your concentration only works for so long before fatigue sets in and you end up with diminishing returns—which isn't exactly what you're going for, now is it?
4. Move around.
Constant sitting at a desk is bad for your physical and mental wellbeing. The endorphins (happy chemicals your body makes when you exercise) from getting in a walk or doing some stretches will have you looking forward to your breaks.
Interestingly, walking was also shown to have a positive effect on creative thinking in a study by Stanford University's School of Education. For extra benefits, use your walk to meditate or catch up and connect with someone else on your team.
5. Reward yourself.
Make it easier to build a habit of taking regular breaks by recording them, and creating a reward.
And if that reward can be directly incorporated into your downtime, all the better.
After all, breaks should be a time to do something you enjoy away from your station. And if you want to use your break to become more resilient, Foundations is here for you.
Do you take regular breaks at work? How do you feel after a break? Share your answers with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.