break-timeA recent study conducted by Staples found that 90% of employers report encouraging their employees to take breaks, and that 86% of workers believe that taking breaks would make them more productive. Thus it is surprising that the same study found that over a quarter of workers don’t take any breaks other than lunch. And, according to this infographic, only a third of people actually take a lunch break, the rest eat at their desks or don’t break for lunch at all.

Why? Many people think they are just too busy to have time for breaks during the day. According to the Staples research, 20% of respondents cited guilt as the reason they don’t take breaks. This Harvard Business Review (HBR) article cites fear of losing momentum and the inability to get back on track as key reasons for avoiding breaks—especially when we feel we’re highly engaged and are working at peak productivity.

However, science doesn’t agree. Just about every study on the topic has shown that taking breaks increases rather than decreases productivity. The HBR article notes that, “Studies show we have a limited capacity for concentrating over extended time periods, and though we may not be practiced at recognizing the symptoms of fatigue, they unavoidably derail our work. No matter how engaged we are in an activity, our brains inevitably tire.” Sporadic breaks, it goes on to note, “replenish our energy, improve self-control and decision-making, and fuel productivity. “

The Science of Breaks

A recent Buffer post, The Science of Taking Breaks at Work: How to Be More Productive By Changing the Way You Think About Downtime, takes an in depth look at the science behind the benefits of taking breaks. One very interesting scientific observation is that our brain activity actually increases when we let our minds wander. That’s why taking a break when you’re stuck on a problem, and giving yourself permission to daydream or to simply relax, will result in the solution presenting itself—as in the “aha!” moment people often experience in the shower or while they are drifting off to sleep.

Taking Effective Breaks

Once you’ve embraced the need for breaks, it is important that you make the most of your break time so that you return from it energized and ready to be productive. This Japanese study found that viewing pictures of cute baby animals (as opposed to adult animals or neutral images) significantly improved participants’ performance on tasks that required carefulness and attention. This infographic provides additional suggestions for break activities, as does the end of the Buffer post noted above. However, according to researcher Charlotte Fritz, you may want to think twice about that coffee break. Her research, specifically related to short work breaks taken during the day she calls “microbreaks,” found that non-work related activity such as coffee breaks or bathroom breaks had a negative impact on energy while work-related break activity such as praising a colleague or drafting a to-do list had a positive effect.

Making Time for Breaks

So, what can you do as a small business owner to promote break taking that will lead to increased productivity for yourself and your team? The Staples study suggests that improving your break room can go a long way towards helping your employees take more frequent and more productive breaks. This infographic provides details.

Another strategy is to structure breaks into your day. The Buffer post noted above provides several strategies for effectively scheduling breaks. There are many theories for when to break. The Pomodoro method suggests three 25 minute work spurts, each followed by 5 minute breaks then one more 25 minute session followed by a 30 minute break. Another approach is to work in 90 minute blocks separated by 20 minute breaks. However, a recent study that used desktop time tracking software to study work habits, found that the most productive 10% of workers in the study work for 52 minutes then break for 17 minutes before starting another 52 minute cycle. The study authors call this “working with 100% dedication” in which the workers “make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst.”

A Helping Hand from Software

If you find yourself working through planned breaks, consider installing software on your computer that will prompt you, or even force you to take them. Two free options are Scirocco Take a Break and Eyes Relax. The Scirocco application runs in your system tray and pops a message (based on your settings) when it is time for you to take a break. Eyes Relax is a bit more robust. You can program it to prompt for long and short break times, and you can program how it enforces the break—a simple reminder you can dismiss, freezing your screen for a designated period of time, or showing an image or slide show. (Hint: Try pictures of cute baby animals.)

So, however and whenever you decide to do it— be sure to take a break, or two or three, today. You not only deserve it, but science shows you need it too.

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Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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