Your calendar is probably full of things to do, but how often do you schedule in breaks? If it’s rare to find a blank space on your calendar, you should rethink your nonstop workflow. Taking regular timeouts can help you refresh your focus and get more done, productivity experts say. And how often you should break depends on your workload, energy level ,and the time of day.
“Don’t think of breaks in terms of taking a set number a day, such as 12 or five,” says Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours. “The real question is what is the appropriate time period of concentrated work you can do before taking break?”
Every 75 to 90 Minutes
Pozen suggests taking a break every 75 and 90 minutes. “That’s the period of time where you can concentrate and get a lot of work done, he says. “We know that because we have studied professional musicians, who are most productive when they practice for this amount of time. It’s also the amount of time of most college classes.”
Working for 75 to 90 minutes takes advantage of the brain’s two modes: learning or focusing and consolidation, says Pozen. “When people do a task and then take a break for 15 minutes they help their brain consolidate information and retain it better,” he says. “That’s what’s happening physiology during breaks.”
Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, calls this work-and-break pattern “pulse and pause,” expending energy and then renewing it. “His research shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes,” says Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management.
If we pay attention, we’d realize that our body is sending us signals to rest and renew, says Kruse. “But we override them with coffee, energy drinks, and sugar… or just by tapping our own reserves until they’re depleted,” he says.
Every 52 Minutes
Sometimes you don’t have an hour and a half to work, and the good news is you can work in shorter spurts and reap the benefits of breaks. An experiment by the software startup Draugiem Group using time-tracking app DeskTime found that the most productive workers took regular and frequent breaks, working in 52-minute sprints with 17-minute breaks. The employees got more done without working longer hours, and regular breaks made them more efficient.
“The reason the 10% most productive employees are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that they’re treated as sprints for which they’re well rested. They make the most of the 52 working minutes, in other words, they work with purpose,” the authors of the study write.
Every 25 Minutes
Another option is using the Pomodoro Technique, breaking extended amounts of focus into short bursts of work. This pulse-and-pause technique involves working for 25 minutes and taking a five-minute break. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, who named it after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used, the Pomodoro Technique works well when a single task requires your full focus.
Figuring out the right amount of time for breaks can take trial and error. The important point isn’t the exact length of the sprint or the break; it’s figuring out what pulse-and-pause cycle works best for you, says Kruse. “Our cognitive capacity declines throughout the day; you must build in frequent mental breaks to recharge and maintain productivity,” he says.
How to Use Your Break
Not all breaks are created equal, according to Northern Illinois University (NIU) assistant psychology professor Larissa Barber and NIU psychology doctoral student Amanda Conlin. “Employees tend to choose breaks that often do not work to their benefit,” they write in an article for Psychology Today. Some of the most popular breaks—like having a snack, drinking caffeine, or venting about a problem—are actually associated with more fatigue.”
Employees choose these activities as a way to cope from fatigue, but these types of breaks don’t address or renew their energy. To make a break effective, you need to mentally disengage from work thoughts. Morning breaks can include meditation, talking to a friend, helping a coworker, or even engaging in goal setting, but afternoon breaks are more important and need certain activities, says Pozen. “Our body energy goes down during this time, and a break can reenergize you,” he says.
Participate in some form of exercise, suggests Kruse. “It’s no secret that regular exercise improves our metabolism and increases energy levels,” he says. “But many feel that including exercise within the workday is asking for too much—and that’s why using this longer break for simple exercise is so effective. Simple exercise could include a 20-minute power walk or a bike ride of similar length.”
Pozen says naps are one of the best forms of afternoon breaks. “A short nap done at the right time is very invigorating,” he says. “A lot of people are worried they’ll sleep for three hours, but there’s a simple solution; it’s called an alarm clock.”
While breaks feel indulgent and perhaps even like you’re slacking off, they’re an important part of your productivity plan, says Pozen. “It’s not the amount of time you spend working, it’s what you get accomplished,” he says. “We need to do away with time as a success metric. You can accomplish more when you give yourself breaks to reenergize.”