We take breaks at work whether we’re aware of them or not.
Here’s an unconsciously chosen break: clicking away from a report you’re supposed to be writing to read headlines that haven’t changed much since you checked them 15 minutes before. Unfortunately, the headlines just make you tense, and thanks to the interruptions, writing the report takes twice as long as it should.
A consciously chosen break, on the other hand, might make you more productive. When Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy put employees of several Wachovia bank branches through a wellness program a few years ago, which included instructions on defusing stress and taking breaks, these people substantially increased the revenue they brought in.
The key is to recognize when your energy is running low, and then choose an activity you know will replenish it. This will differ, naturally, from person to person. Some ideas:
1. Make a connection.
Your colleagues are probably interesting people. Why not get to know them? Carol Evans, president of Working Mother media, says that she’s an extrovert, and so "I relax by taking the time to talk to one of my coworkers about something personal."
David Rusenko, CEO of the San Francisco-based website creation service Weebly, reports that "I try to go to Jackson Square Park at least once a day to recharge my battery and have productive conversations with employees outside the office." Instead of watching the office coffeemaker percolate, alone, invite a co-worker to grab a coffee down the street.
2. Use your work perks.
Work for one of those hip companies with foosball tables or ball pits? If the last time you availed yourself of them was the week you were hired, maybe today’s the day to jump in. Or maybe your work perks are more elaborate. According to Rusenko, Weebly offers 20-minute massages every two weeks to employees. "It’s a great way to clear your mind and release any latent back stress from sitting down all day." Regardless of the perk, it can’t help you if you don’t use it.
3. Train your brain.
Stella Zawistowski is a copywriter at an advertising agency by day, and a crossword constructor on the side, publishing puzzles in the New York Times and elsewhere. How does she take her breaks? "I’ve already done 10 crossword puzzles today (in addition to the four I normally do before I even get to work)," she reports. "It’s a slow day." It only takes her five minutes to do a puzzle, so that’s not as tim-consuming as it sounds.
4. Goof off.
"To find my Zen during the day, I do a couple of things to really clear my head," says Milind Gadekar, CEO of CloudOn. "I will take a quick break and play a mobile game like 7 Little Words or Solitaire or enjoy an actual Kit Kat break with some chocolate."
5. Get physical.
Though it’s hard to believe, movement can be as energizing as a candy bar. "Now that I work from home, my work breaks usually take the form of physical tasks," says Jennifer Dziura, career writer for GetBullish.com. This includes "slamming out a few pull-ups on the bar in my bedroom doorway." If you’re stuck in an office? "I recommend putting on your running shoes, taking the stairs out of the office, walking around the block, and taking the stairs back up." She notes that "Articles are always telling you to take the stairs at work, but if you’re like me, your work shoes are not appropriate for exercising, so you’re not likely to take the stairs organically during the day." If you need an excuse, "Bring someone from the office with you, suggesting that a short walk would be a great time to brainstorm a work problem, just like those famous ‘walk and talks’ on The West Wing."
6. Get really physical.
Telecommuting? Fifteen minutes is enough time to do a quick bike ride (my favorite break) or an exercise video.
7. Do nothing.
"My favorite 15-minute break is to lay down flat on my back," says Donna Skeels Cygan, a certified financial planner at Sage Future Financial in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sometimes she really does nothing. "Sometimes I spend my 15 minutes focusing on all the things I have to be grateful for, and sometimes I try to clear my mind and meditate. Any of these allow me to get up after 15 minutes feeling refreshed and reenergized."
[Image: Flickr user Jônatas Cunha]