The surprising power of “microbreaks”: Why small, frequent breaks are the secret to productivity, focus, and well-being

We’ve all had those days where we get to quitting time and realize we haven’t gotten up from our chair for the past 4 hours. Breaks are seen as a luxury in our always-on, high-pressure work culture. Our days are crammed from morning to late into the evening with emails, calls, chats, and tasks.

Work even invades our meals. Recent studies found that 62% of professionals typically eat lunch at their desks (a phenomenon social scientists have given the depressing name of “desktop dining”). 

We all know we need to take breaks to keep our energy levels high. So why can’t we seem to take even just a few minutes away from our desk?

A growing body of research has found that “microbreaks”—frequent, short breaks taken throughout the day—can be just as or more beneficial as long breaks.

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Microbreaks 101: What they are, why they benefit you, and how to do them

A microbreak is any short break you take from your work during the day. This could be anything from standing up to stretch to chatting with a coworker for 2 minutes or even going to grab a coffee.

Unfortunately, the “anything goes” nature of microbreaks makes them pretty unappealing on the surface. There are already more than enough distractions pulling at your attention each day. So why purposefully add more?

We’ve even written many times about the importance of scheduling long stretches of focused time for meaningful work? However, microbreaks aren’t the same as those other distractions.

Despite its sedentary nature, knowledge work is exhausting both physically and mentally. Whether you’re an employee or project stakeholder, hours spent sitting at a desk and staring at a screen puts a strain on your eyes, body, and mind. Even worse, focusing for too long on a task can actually ruin your productivity.

There’s a psychological phenomenon called Troxler Fading, which is when continual attention to a non-moving object can cause it to “disappear” from our view.

However, researchers now believe the same thing can happen when we focus too much on a single task. As Dr. Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois explains:

“If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought’s disappearance from our mind.” 

While focus is important during the workday, too long spent in a focused state can start to backfire. Our mind naturally wanders when our energy levels dip. Our bodies start to crave movement and our attention falters.

Microbreaks impose small interruptions in your focus to ease your body and reboot your brain. Just a few minutes (or less) of distraction can have a disproportionately powerful impact on your productivity.

Studies show microbreaks can improve your ability to concentrate, reduce workplace stress, increase your happiness about your job, and even help you avoid common desk injuries

Even better, microbreaks can involve pretty much anything from making a cup of tea to walking around the office. In fact, there are only two rules you need to follow: they should be short and voluntary.

If you’d like to start working microbreaks into your day but don’t know where to start, here are a few suggestions.

Try the 20/20/20 exercise to reduce eye strain

Staring at a screen all day is incredibly hard on your eyes and your body. As we squint or strain to look at our screens our facial, neck, and shoulder muscles tighten with eye fatigue becoming a serious issue in as few as 2 hours. 

Microbreaks are a great opportunity to give your eyes a break. One method that works especially well is the 20/20/20 exercise.

Every 20 minutes stare at an object at least 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds. This simple exercise helps reduce eye fatigue and prevent neck and back soreness, headaches, and blurred vision. 

Practice breathing exercises to lower stress

According to recent surveys, up to 80% of workers feel stress on the job. And while we’ve written at length about how to reduce workplace stress, there are a few quick exercises you can try during a microbreak. 

Workplace stress triggers our “fight or flight” response (which brings on elevated anxiety and reduces our cognitive abilities). To break out of this feeling, you can try a simple breathing technique:

  • Sit somewhere comfortable with a straight back. 
  • Close your eyes and begin breathing through your nose. 
  • Inhale for a count of two
  • Hold your breath for a count of one
  • Exhale gently through your mouth for a count of four
  • Finish by holding your breath for one second and then repeat

The 2–4 count is a good place to start, but if it feels too short you can extend it to 4–6, 6–8 and so on. The key is to exhale longer than you inhale. 

Stretch, walk, and move your body to counteract too much sitting

Most of us spend all day sitting in front of a desk, which can lead to all sorts of health issues. Recent studies have linked a sedentary lifestyle to everything from anxiety to hip and back issues and even a higher chance of heart disease. 

Microbreaks are a great opportunity to counteract the need to sit during the workday. Take a few minutes to stand up and stretch or walk around the office. 

Get some fresh air and be in nature

Spending even just a few minutes during a microbreak outside can boost your cognitive functions and help increase your productivity. When researchers studied the impact of air quality on productivity, they found that poor air circulation in offices led to a drop in productivity of as much as 5-6%. 

However, exposure to fresh air doesn’t just help keep us productive. People who get more fresh air have reduced mental fatigue and even sleep better at night.

If you can’t make it outside, you’re not completely out of luck. One study found that even just 40 seconds of staring at a green roof (vs a concrete one) boosts sustained attention and focus.  

Drink more water

Pretty much everyone could be drinking more water during the day. Being properly hydrated increases your physical performance, keeps you motivated, and improve focus. In fact, one study found that drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning can increase productivity by 14%.   

On the other hand, even mild dehydration can cause fatigue, anxiety, and stress (not to mention trigger headaches and migraines).

As an added benefit, drinking more water forces you to be more consistent with your microbreak schedule as you’ll be constantly getting up to refill your glass (and head to the bathroom). 

Watch a funny video

It might seem counterintuitive to try and boost focus by doing something distracting. However, even a brief forced mental break from your task can be enough to reboot your thinking. 

Spend a few minutes scrolling through Facebook, checking out some cute puppy videos, or jumping on a quick call with a friend.

(Researchers from Hiroshima University have even gone so far as to claim that “looking at adorable pictures of kittens rolling helplessly in balls of yarn heightens our focus, and the ‘tenderness elicited by cute images’ improves our motor function on the computer.”

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5 ways to bring microbreaks into your daily schedule

Microbreaks are easy to implement, have a huge impact on our productivity, and help us feel energized all day long. However, building them into a workday habit isn’t easy. 

There will always be some urgent email, call, or meeting that will come up and sweep away your attention. While there’s no suggested frequency for microbreaks, there are a few strategies you can use to work more of them into your daily schedule.

1. Schedule them

The easiest way to take more microbreaks is to simply put them in your schedule. Most workers live and die by their calendars. And adding in time for short breaks ensures you keep up with them. (This is easy if you practice time blocking)

An example of a time-blocked schedule from designer Brad Frost.

However, if you don’t want to dedicate a full “block” to a microbreak, try adding in a short buffer between tasks. This way you’re not only giving yourself time for a microbreak but also being more realistic with your schedule.  

2. Use the Pomodoro technique

The Pomodoro technique is one of the most famous and well-known time management strategies (work in blocks of 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break). However, it also naturally suits itself to microbreaks. 

After each Pomodoro session, use the time before your next one starts to do one of the activities we mentioned above. 

3. Break up your day into blocks of 52/17 

The only real downside to Pomodoros is that it can often feel like you’re stopping just as you’re getting into a groove. Another option then is to follow the 52/17 rule. One study found that the most productive people tend to work an average of 52 minutes followed by a 17-minute break. 

A simple app like Be Focused can help remind you when it’s time to take a break and also track your progress each day. 

4. Use microbreaks as a reward for hitting small goals 

As we’ve written in the past, we’re more motivated during the workday when we see regular progress on our tasks. This means setting smaller goals and having a system in place for tracking progress.

Microbreaks should happen frequently throughout the day, but they can also be used as an opportunity to celebrate small wins. Using RescueTime, you can set a custom Alert to remind you to take a break after hitting your daily goals. 

This Alert triggers a message telling me to take a microbreak after 1 hour of productive time each morning.

5. Force yourself to take a short break when you’re distracted

Microbreaks are also a good opportunity to reset your mind when you’re getting distracted. Using RescueTime, you can set up an Alert for when you’ve spent too long on social media, news, or entertainment. You can even have it trigger a FocusTime session to block those distractions. 

For example, I get an Alert if I spend more than 1 hour on social media during working hours (which also automatically starts a 30-minute FocusTime session). 

We all work better when we take more breaks

No matter how “busy” you think you might be, you’re never too busy for a microbreak. Taking even just a couple minutes to let your body and mind recharge can do wonders for your productivity, focus, and health. 

How do you work microbreaks into your day? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter. 

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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