How To Make The Most Of Your Too-Short Work Break

If you’re not the type who can sit on a park bench and contemplate nothing, and the conversation around the Keurig machine bores you, what can you do with 15 minutes that isn’t really work but pays off in productivity?

How To Make The Most Of Your Too-Short Work Break


After 90 minutes of meeting, working, thinking, and pushing emails, your glucose is in a bad place. That’s what project management consultant Tony Wong tells his clients. And everyone from NASA to the Berlin Academy of Music have run tests that prove you truly need the equivalent of a smoke break, a shift change, whatever you want to call it.

But let’s say you’re not the type who can sit on a park bench and contemplate nothing, and the conversation around the Keurig machine bores you. What can you do with 15 minutes that isn’t really work, but pays off in productivity?

Stand up and go somewhere, anywhere.

Sitting still at your computer is really harmful, no matter how many mountain bike trails you conquer on Saturday. All you have to do to beat back the creep of fat accumulation, heart disease, diabetes, and simple tiredness is to stand up for two minutes, every 20 minutes, as New York Times fitness columnist Gretchen Reynolds advises. You can set your timer of choice to go off every 20 minutes, or rely on something like 20 Cubed for Chrome that’s custom-built for the task.

Walking around is even better, but all you really have to do is stand up. You can make a quick phone call, check Twitter on your phone, and pretend you’re reading an email, the important thing is that you get your butt out of your seat.

If you feel guilty (or feel you’re being watched) on your two-minute standing break, try thinking of it instead as the equivalent of a 10-minute break every 90 minutes, which is, as noted, just about when you’ll hit your own focus wall. Add another 5 or 10 minutes, and you’re the healthiest, least pressure-cooked person at work.

Give yourself a “shower moment”

It’s a cliche that the best ideas come to us in the bathroom, in the shower, or in the baking supplies section of the supermarket. One Columbia Business School professor sought to figure out the real reason why we do so much better in those moments than in times we set aside for formal brainstorming or planning. William Duggan discovered a big part of the answer had already been written by a 19th Century Prussian General who obsessed over Napoleon. As Duggan explains it, General Carl von Clausewitz determined that part of Napoleon’s strategical brilliance involved:


… reaching a presence of mind free of all preconceptions, allowing the mind to make its own connections in a flash of insight, and resolving to execute the course of action despite potential resistance, he said.

Most of us don’t have minds as singular and focused as Napoleon’s (probably for the better). But we can aide our minds in gaining flash insights by focusing on a menial but mindful task, like walking the dog, or washing the dishes. Come up with some rote task you sorta-kinda need to do twice a day at work, and you’ll give your mind the crucial strategy time it needs to make connections.

Connect with your mentors, and mentor others

“Mentoring” feels like such a heavy, official word, so call it “advising,” or “coaching” if you like. By setting aside regular breaks to give people advice on their projects, or their career path, you are also reinforcing your own goals and values. 

If you’re new to a field, or you feel you always have a ways to go, you need to get your own mentor. It doesn’t have to be someone who’s an unreachable top-shelf pro; having a younger mentor can be an energizing relationship. If it feels awkward to reach out and ask someone for free help, take career columnist Penelope Trunk’s advice: do lots of favors, figure out when it’s easy for them to talk or email, and go out of your way to meet in person.

A quick email, phone call, or IM exchange with your mentor or mentee easily fits inside your break. If you haven’t found the right individual yet, consider being a kind of meta-mentor by contributing to answers with your expertise on Quora, community projects and wikis, and other sites that you never have time for you in your personal web browsing.

Meditate for just two minutes

Does meditation absolutely, scientifically clear your mind, make it stronger, and produce measurably greater work product? No, and the science isn’t quite there to prove a direct correlation either way. But it works for some people, and as blogger and minimalist enthusiast Leo Babuta explains, you can start a practice with literally two minutes. It’s more about making meditation a habit than mastering the art, and it doesn’t require pillows, music, or anything, really, but a place to sit.

Meditation fits nicely into a break on a few levels. You’ll find yourself fighting against it, trying to avoid actually taking a break from thinking about all that stuff you have to do. But the benefits of getting away from your desk, thinking beyond your inbox, or just thinking about nothing are huge.


[Image: Flickr user wakingphotolife]