4 Tips for Using Breaks to Work Less and Produce More

Note: This is a guest post from Nate Klemp, PhD, of LifeBeyondLogic.com

The American Philosopher Henry David Thoreau mastered the art of break taking. For him, the world of work was like a prison. “This world is a place of business,” he insisted. “It is nothing but work, work, work.”

Breaks were his path to freedom. Without them, life lost its value. “If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society,” he said, “I am sure that for me there would be nothing left to live for.”

But break taking is not only good for our souls. Strangely enough, it’s also good for productivity and work. If my mind is well rested, I can do four hours worth of work in an hour. If my mind is tired, even the most trivial tasks take significant time and effort.

By mastering the art of break taking, you can maximize productivity and minimize the strain of work. Here are four types of breaks to help you do this:

1. Micro-Breaking

How often do you find yourself sitting at your desk waiting for a file to download, an email to send, or a live person to answer your call? In these moments, our natural reaction is frustration and anger. But see what happens if you shift your experience of them. See if you can use them as micro-breaks – as momentary pauses for reenergizing your mind and body.

Breathing is one of my favorite ways to spend my micro-breaks. Instead of watching impatiently as your file downloads, bring your attention to your inhales and exhales. See if you can lengthen and smooth out the quality of your breath.

Stretching is another great tool. Use these momentary pauses to shake out and stretch your neck, arms, and shoulders.

2. Mental Rebooting

Do you ever get that feeling of mental sluggishness? Most of us try to push through it. But here’s the thing. The work we produce in this state tends to be sloppy, second rate. And what’s worse, the more we push, the more we drain our mental and physical energy.

So I’m a big fan of the mental reboot. To do this, I recommend exercise. It might be a quick walk, yoga class, run, or bike ride. These short periods of physical exertion reenergize the mind and body. They ensure that when you go back to sitting in front of your computer, your creative juices are flowing.

3. Sunset Breaks

These days, almost everyone seems to work crazy hours both in and out of the office. Even when we’re at home or out to dinner with friends, we may feel an irresistible temptation to check email and answer calls. In these moments, our bodies may be at home or at a restaurant, but our mind is still back at the office.

So see if you can create several work-free hours at the end of each day. Your work-fast might start at sunset or maybe you can only afford to break for an hour before bed. These intentional evening breaks give your body and mind a chance to wind down. They help your system prepare for sleep and recharge for the day ahead.

4. Macro-Breaks

In my experience, small breaks during the day and in the evening have powerful effects. They allow you to live well while also working productively. But these smaller breaks are not enough. Every month or so, your system needs more time to rebuild, refresh, and reenergize.

To do this, I recommend taking occasional macro-breaks – full weekends or even weeks away from work. You might think that these breaks take away from productivity. A week off work means a week with no tangible value-added. But these longer breaks have a number of beneficial effects:

  • They give your body and mind an opportunity to reenergize, ensuring that when you go back to work, you bring your A-game.
  • They give you distance and perspective. Longer breaks take you out of the details of work-place drama and can help you see the bigger picture. While taking one of these breaks you might find that the solution to one of your most difficult challenges at work comes to you out of nowhere, in a matter of seconds.
  • These breaks are good for maximizing productivity. But let’s not forget their most important benefit. They allow you to spend time with friends and family, to explore new activities and new places, and to have fun.

***

If you choose to experiment with these four types of breaks, you may find that your boss or co-workers see your new work style as lazy or unproductive. Most of them live in the world of “work, work, work.” But let your productivity and creativity prove them wrong. Soon, they’ll see that your weekend getaways, lunchtime yoga classes, and one-minute micro-breaks are what make you such a rock star at work.

I would love to know what you think. Have you experimented with this kind of break taking? What keeps you from taking more breaks?

Nate Klemp, PhD is a professor at Pepperdine University. He founded LifeBeyondLogic.com, a website dedicated to exploring philosophy as an art of living. You can follow him on Twitter @LifeBeyondLogic and on Facebook. Download a free copy of his new ebook, Finding Reality: Thoreau’s Lessons for Life in the Digital Age.

Photo by Zach Dischner

9 Comments

  1. Hi Nate,
    I am a huge fan of mini-breaks. Without them life is becomes one giant to-do.

    If I am working on my blog I like to go outside and lay in my hammock.

    If I am doing work outside like landscaping then I go inside to chill-out.

  2. It seems taking breaks is the theme of the personal dev world lately. Both Change Your Thoughts and Pick the Brain hit on it.

    I’m learning alot about breaks and now hope my boss is kind enough to understand why I nap 😉

  3. Micro-Breaking is a new term for me, but it is something I use to refocus. The breathing is a great idea. One that I need to do a bit more of.

    As I work from home, 10 minutes outside in the garden or playing with the dog is a great reboot for the brain. A complete change of place and activity is the best way I have found to recharge my thinking and get the most out of my work time.

  4. Thanks for the article, Nate.

    Here’s an interesting article that describes how taking breaks (especially in the shower!)helps creativity: http://the99percent.com/tips/7034/Developing-Your-Creative-Practice-Tips-from-Brian-Eno

  5. Micro breaks are great. Even if you can take a minutes to just grab a cold drink of water and get up and stretch is beneficial to your productivity. I recommend physically writing down where you left off and what you have next to accomplish to help you get back into the swing of things quicker.

  6. The various types of breaks you have outlined in your post are excellent examples of how important it is to value not only our time but also our need for time out! Rebooting our minds / bodies or ‘recharging our batteries’ gives us a greater sense of balance as we manage daily tasks and large-scale projects. This is the best approach to being productive.

  7. mini break is a new term for me. great post!

  8. Hey Nate. Macro breaks does it for me. 🙂

    I recently took 2 weeks off from work to travel with my partner and it was heaven. Normally, I rarely take time off (thought it was a waste of time) but now I am planning my next trip away already.

    It definitely re-charged my batteries and I felt a lot fresher coming back to work.

  9. […] 4. Take breaks. Working for several hours at a time will make you mentally exhausted and eventually slow you down. Therefore, take a break every 1 to 2 hours for ten minutes at a time. Other good break suggestions can be found here. […]

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