Not everyone takes regular breaks during their work session, but the benefits of happiness and productivity are huge for me (when I can get myself to do that, of course). My work/break ratios change depending on several factors, but whether we’re talking 50 minutes of work followed by 10 minutes of break or 1h 30 followed by 25, the question that I couldn’t help but ask myself is… what the hell should I do with those minutes to get the most out of them? I believe I got to a satisfying conclusion.
What’s a break for?
In my opinion, there are two big reasons that make breaks worth taking: quality of life and productivity. There are two keywords I keep in mind to maximise those aspects: reenergize and recalibrate. Here’s what I mean.
Reenergize your body
We haven’t evolved for desk work. Spending that much time sitting, focused on a complex task is taxing on the body. My goal on a break is just to “feel alive” as much as possible. We can recharge by:
- Drinking — It's easy to get dehydrated without noticing and it causes a whole list of side effects that are not that easy to identify. A few sips during a break make sure you don't have to worry about that.
- Eating — Unlike drinking, only if you're hungry. Possibly unprocessed food that provides a stable source of energy.
- Moving, stretching, breathing - I love going on short walks when the time allows it, possibly in nature.
Recalibrate your mind
Unfortunately, we haven’t evolved for being happy either. We can get so immersed in what we’re doing that we lose our sense of perspective. Here’s what I do to preserve my mental well-being:
- Mindfulness — You can follow a few breaths if you feel like it, but the basic idea is to just detach from thinking and sink into feeling. Being focused takes effort, and forcing yourself to “unfocus” is a great way to help your brain recover.
- Perspective — Connected to the previous point, we can gain some perspective on a frustrating problem and remind ourselves to enjoy the process. The process is, after all, the bigger part of our lives.
- Motivation — Another thing that can happen is to lose touch with the motivation behind our actions. A cheesy yet helpful way of reminding ourselves is to have some kind of statement written down to read on those occasions, but reasoning about it will also do just fine.
- Rewards — A bit more controversial: if you have enough time left, you can do a little something that feels like a reward. I find it particularly helpful when I really don't feel like doing what I have to do, and can't seem to get into the flow. The important thing is, though, that it shouldn't distract you so much that you won't want to go back to what you were doing. If you are doing something that might turn into procrastination (eg. watching YouTube), I strongly recommend setting a timer before starting. A little reward could make a big difference, but try at your own risk 😉 It might be worth avoiding if willpower isn't your strong suit.
In other words…
Do you have to do each of these things every time you go on a break? Hell no. But I personally find it useful to have a reminder. Here's a recap checklist to follow loosely:
I’d suggest writing it down (on a post-it, on your phone, …) and keeping it handy to make it easy to go through the points during breaks. If you hate checklists, just remember: reenergize and recalibrate.
Sometimes I ignore it entirely, but when I force myself to follow the steps I never regret it. Try it out and customise it to your needs.