The Science Behind Taking Breaks

February 11, 2018

Here at The Beech Centre, as part of our daily operational objectives we take regular 15-minute breaks away from our desks every hour.

You are now probably thinking that pausing at work might seem counterproductive. It’s time you could spend finishing your project. Also, in some companies, being away from your desk can be frowned upon, as if you are wasting time. So what scientific evidence emphasises that having breaks is key to productivity.

Your brain is like a muscle, requiring an incredible amount of energy. Thanks to the circadian rhythm, the cyclical patterns our bodies are hard-wired into for sleep, eating, and thinking, your brain can only focus for so long before it needs a break. Our brains store and use glucose as fuel, and this gets depleted quickly.

Non-stop focus on one thing for hours on end will only leave you drained. Take a well-timed break, however, and your mind will be sharper, more focused, and more energized.

Research has shown that although many of us can’t increase the working hours in the day, we can measurably increase our energy. Science supplies a useful way to understand the forces at play here. Physicists understand energy as the capacity to do work. Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable.”

It’s like taking a vacation; you may feel guilty about doing it, but it’s necessary if you want to avoid burnout, to work better, and be happier.

The bad news, however, is that reading Facebook or checking your email every five minutes don’t count as productive breaks. Look at it this way, you want to feel restored and re-energized after your breaks, rather than just push your work back.

The best way to take a real break? Unplug at least 15 minutes after each 60-minute work sprint. 60-minute work sessions make the most sense because that’s how much time your brain can be fuelled or taxed on any one activity.

If you want to get the most out of your break, try one of these suggestions:

  • Take a walk outside, which can reduce stress and boost creativity
  • Eat lunch or a snack and get hydrated. Fuel your brain’s need for glucose
  • Try meditating, which is like exercise for your brain
  • Declutter your desk, since clutter is distracting

Just make sure you take your breaks, so you can move towards peak productivity. The Chrome Browser Extension Break-helper for example, reminds you to take breaks and stay healthy. Any timer or established habit will work, too.

So, I am just off for my break now, let me know when you come back from yours how it felt and if you were more productive…

Lynn Boulonois

Business Development Consultant

The Beech Centre for People, Performance and Organisational Development


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