Science has shown that breaks are good for you. They refresh your focus and help you get more done. Being disciplined enough to take them, however, isn’t always easy. With long to-do lists and an eye on productivity, stopping to pause seems indulgent.
If you’re not seeing the benefits of a break, perhaps you’re not using them correctly, says Carson Tate, author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style. “You need to make a complete disassociation from work,” she says. “Don’t have snack and check email at same time. It needs to be a mental release from work.”
Used properly, taking a break is like hitting a reset button. “When we come back from a break, we can be more creative, innovative, and focused,” says Tate. “We’re not as prone to self interrupt, such as taking Facebook or email breaks. We’re more passionate and connected to work.”
So, what do you do in that time away? Here are some ideas for making the most of your minutes.
5 to 15 minutes
Any type of movement is going to yield positive returns, such as heightened creativity and focused insights, says Tate. “Walk up and down one set of stairs, go outside and walk around block, do push ups or jumping jacks,” she says. “It doesn’t matter, anything to physically get the blood moving. A five-minute break can be more effective than a 30-minute break if you incorporate movement.”
Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is nothing, says Maura Thomas, author of Work Without Walls: An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work. “Instead of diving into your to-do-list, it can be just as productive to practice mindfulness, do a guided meditation, or some deep breathing,” she says. “You can do these activities in two minutes or 20. Little breaks like this keep your mind energized, and they can lead to those ‘aha!’ moments of creative insight.”
Or stare out the window and daydream–but only if your view includes green space. A study published in Harvard Business Review found that “green micro breaks” improve attention span and performance.
If you’ve got a half hour, take a brisk walk, suggests Laura Stack, author of The Exhaustion Cure: Up Your Energy from Low to Go in 21 Days. “Sitting at a desk for hours at a time can decrease your energy level,” she says. “If it’s raining or severely cold, walk up and down a flight of stairs a few times instead. Make do with what you’ve got; take a brisk walk around your floor or through the parking lot or around the building. You can even make the fire stairs into your own Stairmaster.”
Decluttering your workspace can be a good break, says Thomas. “Talk to me all you want about messiness and creativity, but in my work I’ve seen over and over that clutter equals stress,” she says. “Your clutter sends the message to yourself and others that you’re overwhelmed and not in control, and that there may be things buried in the clutter that need your attention.”
Breaks are also impactful if there’s a connection with another human being, says Tate. “Call your friend or check in with your significant other or spouse,” she says. “Stand up and chat with a colleague; not about work, though. Maybe talk about the weekend.”
With an hour to use, get out of your workspace. Go to lunch or get a cup of coffee with a friend, co-worker, or mentor, suggests Thomas. “Strengthening work connections is good for your career, and unwinding with friends and family reduces stress and energizes your brain,” she says.
Use the time to do a “brain dump,” which can help get things off of your mind and on paper where they can be looked at more objectively. If you have a big project coming up, organize your thoughts in writing, says productivity coach Deb Lee. “This is a quick and easy task that allows you to better prepare when it comes time to sit down and knock the project out,” she says.
Or take a break from screens and read. Reading a novel, in particular, can relieve stress more than listening to music, taking a walk, or having a cup of tea, according to a study from the University of Sussex. Reading lowers your heart rate and eases muscle tension, helping you relax and escape your worries.