The phrase “let’s take a break” has vastly different meanings to different people.  For some it may mean a quick stand and stretch break at their desk or a pause to grab a second cup of coffee down the hallway.  For others, a break means going for a long walk, playing a video game or talking to a friend.  For however long and for whatever you choose to do, most of us would agree that taking a break constitutes some sort of stop or interruption of our current activity to allow for rest and refocusing.  Unfortunately, in the work environment, and especially for those working from home right now, taking a real break may seem impossible.  Constant virtual meetings, demanding kids, shared workspace, and other stressors are causing many of us to crave break time like we crave our favorite dessert treat!

But taking a break is not impossible and in fact, it probably takes much less time and effort than you think to enjoy the benefits that come from allowing time to refocus and recharge.  A study in the journal, Cognition, found that “even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods”.  This study and many others argue that after long periods of high focus or simply doing the same uninterrupted task over time, we become “habituated to the feeling and the stimulus” and it no longer registers with our brain in the same way.

Think of the first few weeks someone wears a new wedding band.  They notice the feeling on their finger all the time.  They may even take the ring on and off trying to get used to the new sensation.  Then, after a while the body stops recognizing the feeling of the ring and the person can almost forget they are wearing it at all.  Perception of the sensations fade and the body essentially stops being aware (or becomes “habituated”) of the feeling.  This is the same with long periods of work.  Our brains start to lose focus and our performance also tends to decline.  In fact, our brain starts to register the constant stimulation of the work at hand as less important and less valuable.  And that’s not good for anyone!

So, how can we stop this “habituated” response that has us tied to our work while our focus and energy wane away?  Our brains are wired to recognize and respond to change, and it only takes a few minutes to help re-set and refocus attention.  It’s all about disrupting the activity cycle – taking an intentional pause in the activity (work) at hand, giving space to quickly do something else, and then resuming the activity. So, when you are confronted with a longer task (e.g. writing a report, sitting in a long training, researching for hours online) it is critical to build in mini-breaks that allow your brain to pause, shift away and return to the task more refreshed and ready to be productive.

The following are just a few ideas for mini breaks:

  • Walk up and down the stairs 3 times in a row
  • Fold 5 pieces of laundry
  • Listen to your favorite song
  • Do 10 each of push-ups and sit-ups
  • Walk to the end of your hallway, block or driveway
  • Eat a snack
  • Drink 8 oz. of water
  • Write a thank you note or email to someone
  • Do a 3-minute standing stretch
  • Wash your hands and put on lotion
  • Step outdoors and take 5 deep breaths
  • Close your eyes and count to 20 before opening your eyes again

Beyond the breaks, try these creative ways to build in more intentional pauses to your day:

    Try setting your online calendar’s default meeting setting down from 1- hour to 30 or 45 minutes.
  • Tell colleagues that you will participate in meetings or calls with audio only unless video is specifically requested.
  • Carve out a protected hour or afternoon once a week where you don’t schedule any meetings.
  • Institute “Freedom Fridays” where everyone on the team gets 1-hour to themselves for no meetings, no calls, and no expectations to allow for individual self-care.
  • Limit the number of people who have permission to add items to your calendar.
  • Set up your own 10-minute morning or afternoon brain break. Label that time as “busy” on your calendar and make it a point to leave your desk to refuel your body with a snack, a breath of fresh air or whatever else helps you refresh.

And if you are working from home more lately, check out terrific ideas here for creative virtual training and meeting breaks.

Tara B. Taylor, MPA
Managing Director