Hard work is critical for success at work, but working a full day without breaks is a recipe for burnout. Taking breaks throughout the day can be challenging, especially if there’s a lot on your to-do list. But if you’re intentional about your breaks, they can actually help you be more productive, perform better, and enjoy your day more. Here’s why breaks are critical to your success—and how to make the most of them.
Benefits of frequent breaks
While it may seem counterintuitive, taking frequent breaks throughout the workday can help make you a better worker and teammate. Research shows that taking breaks has a number of benefits, including improvements to your mental health and your work.
Better mental health
A 2021 study by work hygiene company Tork shows that nearly all (94 percent) employees feel happier when they take a lunch break. Most workers also said that breaks give them a fresh perspective, help them maintain mental focus, and help them feel refreshed and energized.
These benefits aren’t limited to lower-level employees. Bosses experience many of the same benefits when they step away, too. And leaders looking to retain their best workers should also know that nine out of ten employees also say they’re more likely to stay at a company if their bosses encourage breaks.
In addition to feeling better, breaks also help you do your job better. A body of research shows that rest breaks boost attention and performance—and reduce on-the-job injuries, pain, and stiffness, whether you have a desk job or a more physical profession. In short, taking breaks actually makes you better at your job.
Frequency of breaks
How many breaks you should take, and how long you should step away to receive these benefits depends on who you ask. Some experts recommend a break every 90 minutes to align with your body’s natural rhythm. Meanwhile, the Pomodoro Technique, a popular focus technique, encourages five-minute breaks every 25 minutes. But evidence suggests that even microbreaks, such as taking a moment to drink from the water bottle sitting on your desk for a few seconds, can help.
What to do on your breaks
No matter when or how long your breaks are, the key is to take breaks that are intentional—which can be harder than it seems. First, plan your breaks. Adding them to your work calendar makes you 30 percent more likely to take them. Next, choosing the right activity to do on your break is critical.
Research suggests the best breaks aren’t just the ones when you don’t work. The best breaks involve a non-work activity that give your body and mind what they need to come back refreshed and ready to dive back into work.
Here are seven activities that can help you get the most out of your breaks.
If you sometimes feel scattered or have trouble staying on task, try meditating on your breaks. A 2021 review shows that mindful meditation can reduce the amount of time your mind spends wandering away from tasks.
There are a variety of ways to meditate. Apps like Headspace and InsightTimer have guided meditations, but all you really need is a few quiet minutes while seated in a comfortable position. Simply close your eyes and observe your breath, your feelings, body sensations, or the sounds around you. If your mind wanders, practice gently bringing it back to what you’ve decided to meditate on.
Set a timer for five minutes of meditation on a short break. If you have the time, work your way up to spending a 30-minute lunch break meditating. Every little bit helps.
Let your mind wander
While meditating can help improve your focus, evidence suggests that intentionally daydreaming on your next break can improve your mood. Being in a good mood can make it seem like the day goes by faster and makes you more productive.
To let your mind wander, use your break to do nothing—literally nothing. It’s harder than it sounds. Don’t give in to urges to check your email or social media, do the laundry, or snack, and don’t try to focus your mind like you would while meditating. Instead, just daydream, about your next vacation, about dinner with friends, about your favorite concert, anything.
If you feel bored, that could actually be a good thing. One study conducted during the pandemic lockdowns showed that boredom increased learning and creativity in college students.
Chat with friends, family, or coworkers
Social breaks can bring huge benefits too, even if your job already involves talking with other people. A 2018 study of call center workers suggests that taking even microbreaks for relaxation and socialization can improve your mood and boost sales performance.
Chatting with coworkers can increase your engagement at work and build camaraderie with your team. If you work alone or from home, strike up a conversation with a family member or have a quick call with a friend. Just make sure to avoid too-frequent interruptions, such as an active group text, since they can reduce productivity.
Government guidelines indicate that adults need 150 minutes of physical activity per week, which averages out to two hours and 30 minutes of moderate activity per week. That can be hard to fit into a busy schedule. The good news is you can rack up these minutes even in short sessions, like during a workday break.
There are tons of ways to get your fitness minutes in. A few minutes of stretching, lifting hand weights, or doing a few squats are great choices whether you work in an office or at home. However, one Finnish study suggests that taking a walk, especially outdoors, could be the best way to get moving on a break. People who took a 15-minute walk during their lunch breaks for 10 days in a row felt refreshed and less fatigued than coworkers who didn’t.
Constantly switching tasks throughout your workday can slow down productivity, but one study suggests that changing things up can improve your creativity. If you’re faced with a long, monotonous task at work, consider using your break to switch to something more creative.
There are a lot of ways to use the creative side of your brain, including drawing, painting, or writing a short story. Access your inner child by doing some arts and crafts or use your lunch break to try a recipe you’ve never made.
Have a snack
Your brain needs fuel to keep functioning during an eight-hour workday, so consider taking a snack break. It’s tempting to reach for something salty, sugary, and processed during a quick break, but try a healthier snack instead. In one study, people who improved their diet and other health factors improved both their moods and their productivity.
According to Harvard Health, the top five foods to eat for brain health are:
- Green vegetables
- Fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon
- Berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries
- Coffee and tea
Take a nap
Getting some shuteye between work tasks makes for a great break, especially if you’re like the nearly four out of 10 Americans who don’t get enough sleep. A recent study showed that a midday nap (before 1:00pm) provided the best boost to alertness, decision-making, and memory. Effects lasted up to two hours after returning to work, which can help you get through an afternoon slump.
While sleeping on the job is often stigmatized, some companies encourage their employees to nap. Ariana Huffington of the Huffington Post and Thrive Global says that nap rooms are critical for employee success. If you work from home, consider using your lunch break to nap or using a shorter break to take a power nap.
Taking regular breaks throughout the day can help you get more done and enjoy your work more. But not just any break will give you the productivity and mood boost you deserve. Choose an activity that feeds your body or mind—or no activity at all. Plan your breaks ahead of time so you’re more likely to take them.
Being intentional about the breaks you take can make you a more productive and happier employee and brighten your day. Use one of the suggestions above or find an activity that refreshes you. No matter what you do: Take a break!