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This is why you need to take microbreaks (and how to do it properly)

We can’t be productive without breaks. But far too many of us can’t seem to get away from our desks, even for just a few minutes.

This is why you need to take microbreaks (and how to do it properly)
[Photo: Vicente Veras/Unsplash]

We’ve all had those days where we get to quitting time and realize we haven’t gotten up from our chair for the past four hours. Breaks are seen as a luxury in our always-on, high-pressure work culture. Our days are crammed from morning to late into the evening with emails, calls, chats, and tasks.

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Work even invades our meals. Studies have found that 62% of professionals typically eat lunch at their desks (a phenomenon social scientists have given the depressing name of “desktop dining”).

We all know we need to take breaks to keep our energy levels high. So why can’t we seem to take even just a few minutes away from our desks?

A growing body of research has found that “microbreaks”—frequent, short breaks taken throughout the day—can be just as or more beneficial as long breaks.

Microbreaks 101: What they are, why they benefit you, and how to do them

A microbreak is any short break you take from your work during the day. This could be anything from standing up to stretch to chatting with a coworker for two minutes or even going to grab a coffee.

Unfortunately, the “anything goes” nature of microbreaks makes them pretty unappealing on the surface. There are already more than enough distractions pulling at your attention each day. So why purposefully add more?

We’ve even written many times about the importance of scheduling long stretches of focused time for meaningful work? However, microbreaks aren’t the same as those other distractions.

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Despite its sedentary nature, knowledge work is exhausting both physically and mentally. Whether you’re an employee or project stakeholder, hours spent sitting at a desk and staring at a screen puts a strain on your eyes, body, and mind. Even worse, focusing for too long on a task can actually ruin your productivity.

There’s a psychological phenomenon called Troxler Fading, which is when continual attention to a non-moving object can cause it to “disappear” from our view.

However, researchers now believe the same thing can happen when we focus too much on a single task. As Dr. Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois explains:

“If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought’s disappearance from our mind.”

While focus is important during the workday, too long spent in a focused state can start to backfire. Our mind naturally wanders when our energy levels dip. Our bodies start to crave movement and our attention falters.

Microbreaks impose small interruptions in your focus to ease your body and reboot your brain. Just a few minutes (or less) of distraction can have a disproportionately powerful impact on your productivity.

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Studies show microbreaks can improve your ability to concentrate, reduce workplace stress, increase your happiness about your job, and even help you avoid common desk injuries.

Even better, microbreaks can involve pretty much anything from making a cup of tea to walking around the office. In fact, there are only two rules you need to follow: they should be short and voluntary.

If you’d like to start working microbreaks into your day but don’t know where to start, here are a few suggestions.

Try the 20/20/20 exercise to reduce eye strain

Staring at a screen all day is incredibly hard on your eyes and your body. As we squint or strain to look at our screens, our facial, neck, and shoulder muscles tighten with eye fatigue becoming a serious issue in as few as two hours.

Microbreaks are a great opportunity to give your eyes a break. One method that works especially well is the 20/20/20 exercise.

Every 20 minutes, stare at an object at least 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds. This simple exercise helps reduce eye fatigue and prevent neck and back soreness, headaches, and blurred vision.

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Practice breathing exercises to lower stress

According to recent surveys, up to 80% of workers feel stress on the job. And while we’ve written at length about how to reduce workplace stress, there are a few quick exercises you can try during a microbreak.

Workplace stress triggers our “fight or flight” response (which brings on elevated anxiety and reduces our cognitive abilities). To break out of this feeling, you can try a simple breathing technique:

  • Sit somewhere comfortable with a straight back.
  • Close your eyes, and begin breathing through your nose.
  • Inhale for a count of two.
  • Hold your breath for a count of one.
  • Exhale gently through your mouth for a count of four.
  • Finish by holding your breath for one second and then repeat.

The 2–4 count is a good place to start, but if it feels too short you can extend it to 4–6, 6–8 and so on. The key is to exhale longer than you inhale.

Stretch, walk, and move your body to counteract too much sitting
Most of us spend all day sitting in front of a desk, which can lead to all sorts of health issues. Recent studies have linked a sedentary lifestyle to everything from anxiety to hip and back issues and even a higher chance of heart disease.

Microbreaks are a great opportunity to counteract the need to sit during the workday. Take a few minutes to stand up and stretch or walk around the office.

Get some fresh air, and be in nature

Spending even just a few minutes during a microbreak outside can boost your cognitive functions and help increase your productivity. When researchers studied the impact of air quality on productivity, they found that poor air circulation in offices led to a drop in productivity of as much as 5-6%.

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However, exposure to fresh air doesn’t just help keep us productive. People who get more fresh air have reduced mental fatigue and even sleep better at night.

If you can’t make it outside, you’re not completely out of luck. One study found that even just 40 seconds of staring at a green roof (versus a concrete one) boosts sustained attention and focus.

Drink more water

Pretty much everyone could be drinking more water during the day. Being properly hydrated increases your physical performance, keeps you motivated, and improves focus. In fact, one study found that drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning can increase productivity by 14%.

On the other hand, even mild dehydration can cause fatigue, anxiety, and stress (not to mention trigger headaches and migraines).

As an added benefit, drinking more water forces you to be more consistent with your microbreak schedule as you’ll be constantly getting up to refill your glass (and head to the bathroom).

Watch a funny video

It might seem counterintuitive to try and boost focus by doing something distracting. However, even a brief forced mental break from your task can be enough to reboot your thinking.

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Spend a few minutes scrolling through Facebook, checking out some cute puppy videos, or jumping on a quick call with a friend. Researchers from Hiroshima University have even gone so far as to claim that “looking at adorable pictures of kittens rolling helplessly in balls of yarn heightens our focus, and the ‘tenderness elicited by cute images’ improves our motor function on the computer.”

Microbreaks are easy to implement, have a huge impact on our productivity, and help us feel energized all day long.

There will always be some urgent email, call, or meeting that will come up and sweep away your attention. No matter how “busy” you think you might be, you’re never too busy for a microbreak. Taking even just a couple minutes to let your body and mind recharge can do wonders for your productivity, focus, and health.


A version of this article originally appeared on RescueTime and is adapted with permission. 

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