Take A Break: It's The Most Productive Thing You Can Do
Updated: Mar 27
(Originally published in Forbes.)
Despite our gut sense and mounting empirical evidence that taking a break will help us think and work more productively, many driven professionals grind away for hours straight during their workday. Clients have told me, "I can't take a break; I just have too much to do" or ask, "How can I take a break when everyone else around me is working?" They worry others might see them as weak or slacking off.
Can you relate? In the overwhelm of too much to do and not enough time to do it, it can feel like the only way to get it all done is to keep going. You may worry that if you stop, you might lose momentum, or perhaps you think that every precious minute will make a difference, so you keep working. This reasoning, however, is a sure sign that what you need to do is stop and take a break.
1. Breaks help us accomplish the most critical things in the best way. When we take a break, we step back from our work. Picking back up, we're forced to think more globally about what we're aiming to accomplish. This "goal reactivation" helps keep our focus on the larger picture of what we're trying to achieve. Without a break, we're more likely to get lost in the weeds and undercut our performance.
2. Breaks improve our decision making. A famous study showed that judges were far more likely to grant paroles to prisoners after taking a break. The percentage of granted paroles dramatically dipped from approximately 65% after a break to nearly 0% after working for a few hours. Working without breaks leads to decision fatigue and compromised reasoning. In this case, judges defaulted to the safest and easiest parole ruling — just saying no. Consider the many decisions you make each day: What might you get wrong, jeopardize or regret that you could avoid if you were instead to "take five"?
3. Breaks allow for breakthrough thinking. Why is it that we often have great insights in the shower, while driving or on a walk? Research has shown that for complex problems that require creative thinking and ideas, a particular brain state is optimal. Namely, we need to be in a positive, relaxed mood and have a quieter prefrontal cortex. In other words, we need to be not directly working on the problem. So, rather than slogging away at your desk trying to solve that thorny problem, take a break — it may be the fastest track to the answer or idea you're seeking.
The science shows why taking a break may be the most important thing you need to do when you have too much to do. Changing behavior is hard, though, so here are four simple, proven strategies from other busy professionals to help you more easily create a new habit.
1. Schedule breaks ahead of time. Ideally, schedule (registration required) at least one break in both the morning and afternoon. Put it on your calendar and treat it as you would a meeting that you must attend. If you need additional accountability to ensure you step away from your work, recruit a colleague to join you or your assistant to hold you to it.
2. Set a timer. If your work allows for more extended uninterrupted periods of focus, try out one of the popular productivity methods, such as the Pomodoro Technique, working in 90-minute blocks (paywall) like the elite performers studied by K. Anders Ericsson or the 52/17 plan. Experiment with whichever of these methods will be most natural to adopt.
3. Schedule your meetings to start 10 minutes 'late.' Rather than scheduling your meetings to start on the hour and half-hour, start them at :10 and :40. There's no logic to the default start times and standard lengths of meetings other than pegging to the scheduling grid to enable synchronization across people. Scheduling your meetings to start at ten minutes past the hour will help you get ahead of those times when you're in back-to-back meetings and ensure you have time to switch gears and reenergize between sessions. Work inevitably fills the time you give it, and starting "late" is a more foolproof strategy than trying to end early.
4. Add a break in the middle of any longer meetings. If your meeting must last beyond 50 minutes, take a break in the middle so everyone can refresh their attention. Either set a timer, pause at the top of the hour or plan to recess at a specific place on the agenda. Let everyone know in advance of the scheduled break, as this will helps them better sustain their focus until then.
When it comes to the ideal way to spend your break, research shows that moving beats stationary, being with others is better than going solo, going outside trumps inside and fully detaching beats semidetaching. Taking a short, cell phone-free walk outside with a colleague you enjoy is an A+. But most critically, something beats nothing — even micro-breaks can be restorative. The best break is one you take — so do what you can and make it easy and enjoyable so you'll want to repeat it.
If you are still finding reasons why your situation and you are the exception, uncover and pressure test your concerns. Will people really think you're weak or a slacker if you're implementing a change to increase your performance and productivity? Is it actually true that you can't take a break? These beliefs will keep you stuck if hold onto them — and they're likely assumptions that are not 100% true.
Taking a short break can keep you focused on the right thing, lead you to better ideas and improve your decision making. Breaks are a strategic move of the smart and informed, not a cop-out of the lazy.