Over the past decade, I’ve tried everything to bring more meaningful breaks into my workday. From meticulously scheduling mandatory breaks to setting alarms, reminders, and notifications to tell me to get up and walk around.
Yet, time and time again I slip back into bad habits and ignore those reminders.
In our culture of doing, even taking a few minutes to yourself can be seen as unnecessary (or downright lazy). However, we need breaks to recharge our mind and our body so we can continue to make smart decisions, protect ourselves from burnout, and work on productive, meaningful tasks.
Recharging your body and mind doesn’t just come down to how long you spend taking breaks. It’s all about what you actually do during that downtime.
So, if you want to maximize your daily breaks, here are a few strategies that will help you stay mentally and physically energized.
Disconnect fully from your work
While it’s easy enough to step away from your desk, it’s much harder to mentally step away from your work.
Which makes sense. Most of us can’t just flip a switch and change our thoughts. Especially when we know we’ll be going right back at it in another 10 minutes.
However, this is a mistake. Research from University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, discovered that we might not see the benefits of taking a break unless we fully disconnect from our work.
Lleras and his team were interested in a phenomenon called Troxler Fading, which is when continual attention to a stationary object can lead to that object “disappearing” from view.
They proposed that if our mind starts to ignore physical objects after a while, maybe it would do the same for thoughts:
“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.”
To test their theory, the researchers asked a group of participants to complete an hour-long repetitive, computerized task (like research, planning, or answering emails). A control group was left alone during the task, while the test group was told to take a brief break if certain numbers flashed on their screens, which happened twice during the test.
When they examined the results, the control group saw a clear decline in performance over time, while the group who had taken the imposed breaks maintained quality throughout.
“From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”
So how do you make sure you fully disconnect during your break?
One option is to distract ourselves by multi-tasking. It might seem counterintuitive to put even more strain on your overworked mind, but the idea here is to force yourself to mentally break from your work. Flip the cognitive switch by loading up Facebook, checking out some cute puppy videos, or jumping on a quick call with a friend or loved one.
Spend time outdoors
Your best work might happen indoors at your office, co-working space, or local coffeeshop, but numerous studies have shown that escaping to the great outdoors for even a short period of time during the day can have benefits for your productivity, health, and happiness.
When researchers from several US universities examined the connection between exposure to fresh air and productivity at one of China’s largest online travel agencies they discovered a steep drop in productivity as air quality worsened.
In fact, when exposed to especially poor levels of air quality, workers’ productivity levels dropped by as much as 5–6%.
The researchers proposed that additional particles in the air, caused by pollution or poor air circulation in offices, is absorbed into the bloodstream causing inflammation and diminished cognitive function.
Not only does exposure to fresh air help keep us productive all day long, but studies have shown that simply surrounding yourself with natural elements helps alleviate mental fatigue.
Additionally, Researchers at the Interdepartmental Neuroscience program at Northwestern University in Chicago found that workers with more exposure to natural light during the day slept an average of 46 minutes more per night, leading them to be more rested and able to work productively the next day.
As the study’s co-author, Ivy Cheung, expressed:
“The extent to which daylight exposure impacts office workers is remarkable.”
Recently, I’ve been trying to take advantage of the combination of fresh air, nature, and sunlight by leaving my phone at home and taking 10-minute walks in between working sessions. While I don’t have any concrete evidence yet, anecdotally I’ve found my energy levels higher on days where I take multiple breaks in this way, rather than stay hidden inside.
Give your eyes a break
Those of us working on laptops or in front of screens are putting an unbelievable amount of strain on our eyes every single day.
And when our ‘breaks’ often involve staring at an even smaller screen on our smartphone it’s no wonder research published in the journal Opthalmology predicts that 50% of the world’s population will need glasses by 2050.
The text and images displayed on the smaller screens of our phone or laptop force our eyes to act in unnatural ways. Normally, we blink around 15 times per minute, but this rate decreases by half when looking at our smartphones especially. As we squint to read on small screens, our facial, neck, and shoulder muscles tighten, with eye fatigue becoming a serious issue in as quick as 2 hours.
So how do we combat the necessary evil of extended periods of screentime?
The answer is a simple exercise called 20-20-20. Every 20 minutes or so, stare at something at least 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds. This simple exercise will help rest your eyes and prevent fatigue, neck and back soreness, headaches, and blurred vision.
For additional relief of eye strain, Dr. Jacob Liberman, author of Light: Medicine of the Future, suggests also taking a short break from reading or looking at a screen every 30–45 minutes and taking a few deep breaths while shifting your focus between a nearby and distant object.
Refuel with the right food
When we’re in the zone, our bodies can become the only thing that actually forces us to take breaks.
Even the workaholics out there can’t ignore a grumbling stomach or parched mouth all day. However, satiating our needs with the wrong foods does little to keep us focused and attentive when we go back to work.
When we feel hungry, a hormone produced in our stomach called ghrelin signals our brain that the body’s energy stores are dipping dangerously low and need to be replenished.
When we eat, food is broken down into glucose, which acts as fuel for the brain. However, unlike your phone that will work pretty much the same at 1% or 100% battery, researchers have found our brains work best with a consistent 25 grams of glucose in our bloodstream.
Now, while you can get those 25 grams from a banana or carb-based snack like bread or rice, a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the best option is protein. Unlike carbs or fat that only provide a 15-20 minute boost in energy after ingesting, the study found that protein provides enhanced cognitive abilities for much longer.
To make the most of your hunger-induced break then, opt for foods high in protein, such as a protein supplement, nuts or nut butter, or a small serving of chicken or beef.
And remember to keep your portions small. Researchers have found that our immune system can react to overeating with temporary cognitive deficits similar to those associated with Alzheimer’s.
Breaks are an essential part of maintaining our productivity at work and protecting us from burnout. Yet, too many of us don’t make the most of what little time off we give ourselves.
Try implementing these strategies into your own workday and let us know what works for you in the comments.