Do you have a complicated relationship with taking breaks while working?
Some of us don’t take enough breaks and burn ourselves out — failing to complete our work or feeling so drained by the time we finish that we can’t even enjoy basking in the satisfaction of a job well done.
Some of us take too many breaks (or let our downtime go on just a few
minutes hours too long) and don’t accomplish the things we wanted to — leaving ourselves feeling unproductive and unmotivated at the end of the day.
And many of us (myself included) switch between both of those things, depending on the day.
We know that taking breathers while working is healthy, but it can be challenging to figure out how to make breaks work for us.
Here are some of the most common struggles people experience with taking breaks and strategies you can use to help balance productivity and rest.
Problem: I Tend to Power Through Without Breaks
You may forget to stop to catch your breath while working. Or, you might pretend that you can “just push through” until you finish, and then you’ll relax. I’ve told myself this bald-faced lie countless times. And let’s check the scoreboard: Have I ever felt comfortably relaxed after pushing through the workday? Nope. Not once.
The problem is that you are exhausted after hours of working without time off. And once you reach that point, relaxing doesn’t feel so much like a well-earned reprieve as it feels like ‘collapsing onto the couch like a pile of human mush and staring zoned out at the television screen without actually watching.’
This creates a cycle of overwork, exhaustion, and restlessness — in other words, an imbalanced motivation loop. Motivation and rest need to stay in balance for a healthy life.
Strategy: Put Breaks On The Schedule
Try planning breaks into your schedule. Make them part of the to-do list. No matter how short they are. Even a 5-minute break can make a big difference.
When you know that the next respite is coming up at 11:30, you can focus better on the work in front of you rather than getting distracted (and spending precious brain energy), wondering when you should take a breather or if you should write “just two more pages.”
Most daily work — such as researching, studying, and attending meetings — is tiring exercise for the brain. If you wouldn’t ask your legs to run for 8 hours straight without rest, don’t ask your brain to do it.
Problem: I Don’t Know What to Do When Taking Breaks
Not all breaks fit perfectly into a schedule, and they don’t need to.
For some, planning downtime isn’t an option because your routine changes on the fly. Perhaps you are at the whim of clients’ availability, or you must operate around your child’s naptime.
For others, scheduling feels too restrictive. For example, if 2:30 rolls around and you are hitting a creative groove, you may not want to interrupt your flow just for an agenda.
It’s valuable to take a break spontaneously, such as when you’re feeling stuck or when your boss cancels that meeting and you have a sudden block of unexpected free time. But that leaves us to make a hasty decision about what to do during our respite. If we can’t find a relaxing activity quickly, we may feel lost or like the time was “wasted.”
Strategy: Make a Picklist
Try making a picklist of breaks: a collection of options, predetermined by you, that you can choose from at a moment’s notice.
Come up with a variety of ideas that take differing amounts of time. Your list of options may include things like:
- Read for 20 minutes
- Listen to 1 podcast episode
- Watch one episode of a half-hour TV show
- Meditate for 5 minutes
- Do a 10-minute yoga routine
- Go for a walk outside
- Color for 10 minutes
- Knit for 20 minutes
Turn to your picklist when your schedule shifts, you hit a creative block, or when both toddlers fall asleep at the same time, and you have an undetermined number of magical minutes before one of them wakes up.
Problem: My Breaks Go On Too Long
Maybe when you find moments for a reprieve, you settle into a mindless activity only to look up at the clock and realize two hours have passed. Instead of feeling refreshed, you now feel guilty and stressed about how much work you haven’t accomplished. Unfortunately, that’s not the best mindset for jumping back into productive work.
Or instead, you spend your entire hiatus watching the clock, trying to decide when you’ve rested “enough.” Then, when you finally start working again, you find yourself mentally drained and tense, not energized.
Rather than relaxing your mind, you’ve remained alert and built up decision fatigue — the effect when our willpower is drained after having to make tons of tiny decisions throughout the day (many that we don’t even realize).
Strategy: Use an Actual Timer
All of the break options on my picklist have a time allotment. And for most of them, I set a timer on my phone when I start, and I stop when it goes off.
But isn’t the amount of time arbitrary? Why yes, yes, it is. I could read for 10 minutes or 1 hour. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that, in the moment, I don’t have to decide when to transition back to work. That’s already been decided, thanks to earlier me. All I have to do now is follow the plan I laid out for myself earlier.
Setting time allotments doesn’t mean being inflexible. If circumstances shift, change the allotted time, but always define a new end time.
This strategy reduces decision fatigue and eliminates any potential guilt for taking “too long” of a rest. Instead, give every break an end time.
Problem: I Feel Worse After Taking Breaks, Not Better
When appropriately used, breaks help to keep you going and feeling refreshed (like a drink of cold water in the middle of a jog), not kill your motivation and undermine your productivity (like lying down and taking a nap in the middle of a jog).
Some activities feel relaxing in the moment but counterintuitively leave us feeling less rejuvenated. If you tend to feel more lethargic, slow, or unmotivated after taking breaks, you may be accidentally leaning on indulgent activities rather than healthy ones.
Strategy: Recognize Healthy vs. Indulgent Breaks
There are healthy breaks and indulgent breaks. Both tend to feel pleasant in the moment; the difference lies in how you feel afterward.
Healthy breaks refresh you and give you the energy to finish more work. (For me, these usually include: reading a book, listening to a podcast, going for a walk outside, and watching one half-hour episode of a funny TV show.)
Indulgent breaks do the opposite — they leave you feeling demotivated, decrease your self-respect, and often make you more tired than when you started. (Mine include: eating unhealthy snacks, watching more than an hour of TV, and going on a bottomless Instagram scroll.)
The definition of which activities are healthy vs. indulgent isn’t absolute. It’s about your intent, how you do it, and how it makes you feel. An activity that leaves you energized might make me feel drained. Pay attention to what works for you.
Insert healthy breaks into your workday, and save indulgent activities for after you finish what you need to do.
Problem: I Get Distracted by Notifications
Notifications are one of the biggest distractions for the modern worker. People reach out to us at all times of the day with a question, a funny meme, a work request, or a long-winded story about this irritating thing their friend said to them yesterday.
Stopping your workflow to check a message does not count as a break. Honestly, I can get so swept up in replying to a text that I’m not sure where I left off in my work or how much time has passed. In that time, not only did I not rest, but I also didn’t do any of my work.
Yet refraining from checking messages feels uncomfortable for most of us. The era of texting makes us feel pressure to respond to our friends immediately.
The truth is most personal messages can wait for a reply. For example, imagine you worked at a job where you couldn’t physically check your phone (like a professional rock climber or something with ladders) — would all still be well if you hadn’t seen that text for a few hours?
Strategy: Schedule Time Blocks for Checking Messages
A lot of you won’t want to do this one. That’s okay; you don’t have to. This strategy is a tricky one.
If you want to overcome distractions, give the following strategy a chance for just one day. See how it goes. If you hate it, you never have to do it again.
It goes like this: Schedule three 20-minute blocks during your workday that you will spend checking emails, texts, social media, and other notifications. For example, I typically plan one block in the morning, one around mid-day, and one in the afternoon.
Don’t check messages outside of these three time periods. Instead, leave your phone on a table across the room and close your inbox (I know, it feels uncomfortable). Then, once your workday is over, it’s free reign for the evening — tap all those red dots as much as you want.
During each 20-minute block, check and respond to as many messages as possible. If a response needs extra thought, save it for later and craft a response when you have more time.
Note: If you feel a friend is expecting a fast response, try replying with a quick “I’m in the middle of some work, but I’ll respond to this tonight!” Go ahead and add an emoji for good measure.
Doing More by Doing Less
The most important thing when designing your downtime is to pay close attention to how you feel when each break ends — do you feel energized, refreshed, and ready to get some more work done? Or do you feel drained, lost, and unmotivated?
Balancing work with healthy reprieves is the key to a workday that leaves you satisfied and ready to relax.