Why You Really Need to Break Up the Day

We are working longer hours than ever before with fewer of the built-in breaks that tended to happen in conventional working arrangements, leading many employees to feel “always on.” The 2021 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, finds that only a third of employees regularly disconnect from workplace communication and women are even more burned out now than they were a year ago.
 
Prolonged work becomes depleting and leads to declines in performance. “We don’t know exactly what in the brain gets depleted, but when you do a cognitively demanding task, it operates as though there’s a ‘mental fuel’ that gets burned up,” says William Helton, Ph.D., a professor of human factors and applied cognition at George Mason University. His research with college students found that students given breaks of varying lengths performed better on attention tasks than those who had no breaks.
 
Whether working from home or on site, intentional and invigorating pauses throughout the day can help you avoid burnout and refresh and reset in ways that actually help drive greater focus, emotional balance and productivity.
 
Make it count
A meaningful break requires a change of activity, pace and scenery. Eating at your desk while reading email instead of working on a spread sheet is not ideal. In fact, unplugging from digital stimulation entirely can provide a particularly restful and rejuvenating break. But what makes a break meaningful and relaxing is also personal. 
 
“Taking regular breaks helps us to be more resilient when stressors arise, and they function as an intervention to help us deal with the daily grind,” according to Charlotte Fritz, Ph.D., who has researched the type, frequency and duration of breaks that are most effective.
 
Consider scheduling breaks into your day just as you would key meetings to make sure they happen. Then, consider these ideas for making them truly restful and rejuvenating. 
 
  • Get moving. Go for a brisk walk, ideally outside, or even in another part of the building where you will be less likely to encounter colleagues who will see this is as the perfect time to converse about a current project. If you work in a multi-story building, climb the stairs for an invigorating break. Getting outside is the gold standard with time in natural environments helping to reduce stress, according to research in Behavioral Sciences.
 
  • Have fun. Laughing is both stress-reducing and relaxing. Listen to an amusing podcast or some stand-up comedy while you take a stroll. Call a friend who always makes you laugh and catch up while cracking up.
 
  • Get crafty. Find a quiet table in the cafeteria or head to a coffee shop and pull out your grown-up coloring book, experiment with sketching with pastels or charcoal, learn to knit or work on a scrapbook. You don’t have to be good at it, you just have to enjoy the novelty and time away from other tasks.
 
  • Play games. Gather a few coworkers for a little lunch time competition with old-fashioned cards or a board game that can be played in short bursts like Taboo, Apples to Apples or Monikers.
 
  • Escape to another world. A great work of fiction can transport you in time and space. When you opt for a physical book, you will also escape from screens for a while.
 
  • Meditate to relax, destress and focus on the present moment. Many places of worship keep their doors open throughout the day and welcome visitors who want to come in and sit quietly in what is typically a peaceful and beautiful environment.
 
  • Eat something healthy and delicious. Food is a multi-sensory experience that can evoke positive memories, increase energy and provide comfort. Whether that means moving from home office to kitchen, pulling out a brown bag lunch at a park or heading to a restaurant, pick something high protein and low sugar that will fuel you for the rest of the day while also providing an emotional treat.
 
  • Crank up the tunes. On a walk, in your car or in a private spot if working from home, blast the music that will get you moving and indulge in a bit of singing, dancing and letting footloose. Favorite, upbeat songs can improve mood and energy levels and get you out of your head and into your body.
 
  • Take a nap. A brief snooze makes some people sleepy but others can find it’s just the ticket to a more productive afternoon. One expert actually suggests drinking a cup of coffee and then sitting back for a brief snooze. The caffeine will kick in about 25 minutes later providing a just-right nap with a built-in wake-up call.
 
However you decide to hit the pause button, make it a regular practice for you and your team and you are likely to reap the benefits of greater focus and productivity with lower levels of stress and burnout.

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