If you read just about any productivity text, it will invariably point out that breaks after working deeply are great productivity boosters. The idea of “ploughing through” a task, without any breaks, is actually understood to be a hindrance (with exceptions) to overall productivity. To incorporate breaks into my workday, I began taking 15 min breaks every 90 minutes. Initially, I thought that break time meant I should be lazy for 15 minutes, or jump around on the internet. Like all things productive, I began to ask myself – “How can I make better use of my break time?” I discovered that planned breaks can be productive, if planned properly.
The importance of breaks
Before going further, it is important to first address why breaks are important to a productive work day. Quite simply – our minds need a chance to rest. That may make sense intuitively, but there is actually some science behind it as well. In her book, A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley discusses the difference between Focused thinking and Diffused thinking. In Focused thinking, our brain is actively focusing on a mental task. Duh. In Diffused thinking, our brain is working in the background, assembling all pieces of new information acquired during focused thinking. Diffused thinking is critical to the learning process and only happens when we are not focusing intently on new information, i.e., when we are taking a break.
Plan tasks during break in advance
If you accept that yes indeed, breaks are important, then the next obvious question is “How can I make the best use of my break time.” Like I said above, I originally thought breaks were a time to “veg out”- essentially do no work at all. However, I began to realise that I could engage in relaxing, yet focused activities, during my break. The important thing was that I wasn’t focusing on my previous work efforts. And as much as I intended to incorporate positive activities during break time, I usually found myself squandering time on activities that were draining. In order to remedy this squandering, I began to schedule and plan out my break activities during my daily planning sessions. Using a post-it note is a great way to do this. The plan might look something like this:
B1 – Use bathroom, stretch hips, stretch hamstrings, stretch quadriceps
B2 – Use bathroom, refill water, stretch hamstrings, deep breathing, check email
LB – Run, eat salad
B3 – Use bathroom, five minute walk outside, take care of bank errand
B4 – Use bathroom, stretch hips again, check email, write a gratitude list
Because I planned and wrote out these activities in advance, I am more likely to actually engage in those activities come break time. A list like above can be completed in 2 minutes, making it a very efficient way capitalise on break time.
Plan rewarding, relaxing activities, if possible.
In my example above, I used very positive, very productive break activities. These activities – stretching, walking, deep breathing, etc. are very good for calming and relaxing the mind. Further, they all help with the Diffused thinking process, which takes absorption of new information to a greater level. If possible, schedule out positive, and relaxing activities for your break time. Or, if there is an errand or phone call to a friend that can be quickly knocked out, try to schedule that also. I caution against net surfing because the temptation is too great for unproductive time. However, checking your favourite productivity blog (especially this one!) and reading a quick article, may be very beneficial to your productive day.
Planned breaks – with positive activities scheduled – can be a boon to productivity. They can help with knowledge retention and rejuvenate us for further deep work. Because the breaks are planned, they relieve anxiety about what to do during “down time” and help us focus and prioritise our non-deep work activities throughout our day.