How to intentionally build break times into your workday

From lunch hours to afternoon breathers, here’s how to make space for some mind-clearing downtime.

How to intentionally build break times into your workday
[Photo: Rumman Amin/Unsplash; Ocean Ng/Unsplash]

It’s not unusual to feel as if 2020 is like an ultramarathon, with no clear finish line in sight.


You tell yourself you need to keep moving forward, but you can only do so if you refuel and recharge consistently to avoid fatigue, burnout, and other mental illnesses. With the amount of change going on in the world and the additional pressures of potentially working from home and trying to help your children stay on track with remote learning, the mental load is exponentially higher.

When you feel like you can’t catch a break, you need to give yourself one. And from my experience as a time management coach, I know you need to give yourself a lot more than one each day in order to thrive.

Here are five types of breaks that you can intentionally schedule into your life to stay focused, motivated, and energized throughout your day.

Morning break

When possible, I recommend devoting the very first part of the day to self-care. That could include stretching, reading, journaling, praying, meditating, exercising, eating, or simply staring out the window with a cup of coffee. By starting out slowly, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to prime your mind for the day, honoring your own needs and getting a sense of perspective that there is a world outside of your job.

When you refrain from checking work email or other work messages until you’re actually starting your workday instead of right when you wake up, you are compressing how long it “feels” like you’re working, potentially by hours. It’s like applying the kind of intermittent fasting where you restrict when you eat to a set number of hours per day to your work. Instead of having a work “snack” right when you get up or late at night, you compress all of your work into a certain time frame so the other hours feel more “free.”

If you’re a working parent with children in remote learning, you may not have the luxury of not doing some work before the kids need to get up and get ready for school. But you can still take a short time, such as 15 to 20 minutes, to do something for yourself first thing in the morning.


Work break

During your workday in the office, you had a lot of natural breaks built in from walking back to your desk after a meeting to chatting with a colleague who stopped by your desk to office social activities.

Now if you work from home or have a lot of restrictions on what you do in the office, your day can feel like one long slog. To keep yourself alert and engaged, you’ll need to discover new kinds of breaks. This could look like using the Pomodoro method where you set a timer for 25 minutes of focused work and then give yourself 5 minutes of downtime. It could look like giving yourself a break after completing larger tasks such as reviewing a proposal or submitting your expenses. Or it could look like a break after you’re done with a meeting to help combat Zoom fatigue.

During these breaks, you can get water, put dishes in the dishwasher, take a quick stretch, return a few texts, or check in on your kids to make sure they’re on track. By giving yourself intentional breaks you’re giving your mind and body little rests throughout the day so that you’re not completely worn out by the day’s end. Intentionally taking breaks also helps you overcome the temptation to take unintentional breaks where you surf the internet and get lost in social media because your brain is too tired to focus anymore.

Lunch break

Taking some kind of mental break at lunch can provide a sense of spaciousness to your day, an opportunity to reset, and a chance to gain perspective. During this time, you could connect with anyone living in your home, read a book, go on a walk, or even stare into space and simply think. The idea is that during this time, your mind can have a chance to relax, recharge, and, if needed, process. I find that this is an ideal time to think through things that might be bothering me or to ponder a challenge I may be facing. By consciously giving myself time for these mental activities, there’s less drag on my “mental background” throughout the day.

Afternoon break

According to Daniel Pink in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, almost everyone experiences an afternoon “trough.” This is that time in the afternoon when you can barely keep your eyelids open no matter how hard you try.

You may find that you experience this at a consistent time each afternoon or it may vary depending on when you eat lunch. But inevitably, you’ll hit that time when getting almost anything done seems impossible. Instead of fighting that truth, give your body the break it needs. Pink recommends a “napaccino”: Down a cup of coffee and then take a power nap for 25 minutes or less. The caffeine doesn’t kick in for about 25 minutes so you should wake up without mental fog because the nap was short and the warm beverage is doing its magic. If taking a nap isn’t quite in the cards, you could at least take a coffee break, go on a walk, check in with a colleague, or check in with your kids.


I find that by giving myself an actual afternoon break, I get more work done more quickly later in the day than if I force myself to keep going while I’m in that afternoon dip.

Evening break

Ideally you can wrap up your work before dinner and not have to log back in later in the evening. As we talked about with the mornings, compressing the time frame when you work makes you feel like you’re working less than if you string out the hours over the entire day. But if wrapping up entirely before dinner isn’t possible because of the level of your workload, having to make up for time due to remote school, or because of additional responsibilities like grad school, I still recommend that you take some kind of evening break.

This could look like stopping to eat dinner, exercising, going to the park with your kids, watching a TV show, tidying up the house, or doing anything that gives you some space to refresh and recharge. The idea is that you want a few hours to not be pushing your brain in an intense way so that it can have some recovery time before moving forward again.

You can make it through 2020, and you can finish strong. The key is to take intentional breaks throughout the day, every day, so you can make it across the finish line.