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How To Take The Most Refreshing Work Break: 7 Evidence-Backed Insights

For one thing, don’t fear the micro-break.

How To Take The Most Refreshing Work Break: 7 Evidence-Backed Insights
[Top Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

If you’re an average worker, you take a few minutes every hour to accomplish something besides what you’re paid to do. This was true long before cat GIFs and Slack emojis; as far back as 1940, according to an early study of break behavior, clerical workers were slipping away for three precious personal minutes an hour. The latest estimate, with the Internet era in full effect, is closer to seven minutes and change—or some 58 minutes away for a full eight-hour work day.

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Taking 10 percent of the paid day for your own pleasure might seem like a gross violation of employer trust. But pacing yourself is key in a connected age that extends the work day far beyond the proverbial punch card, and brings greater risk of burnout. Businesses themselves clearly appreciate the productivity benefits of a little time away; just look at the increased prevalence of office amenities that encourage breaks, from nap pods to super slides.

Courtesy Rosan Bosch

So the key question isn’t really whether or not breaks are a good idea, but what types of breaks do the best job restoring an employee’s capacity to handle the tasks ahead. There’s no magic formula, of course, but a look at the most recent evidence on this emerging line of inquiry produces seven intriguing insights—one for every minute you were going to take off this hour anyway.

1. The Earlier The Break, The Better

Many of our cognitive resources—and indeed, the very size of our brains—diminish as the day goes on. On one hand, that might seem like a reason to do as 5-Hour Energy suggests and take a late break to avoid That 2:30 Feeling. On the other hand, if there is a steady decline in our abilities, it could make sense to break early and stay near the top of the performance chart as long as possible.

To test that question (among several others), management scholars Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu of Baylor University recently asked 95 employees to record their break activity every day for a work week. Hunter and Wu also collected data on levels of concentration, physical and emotional fatigue, and job satisfaction. Their results, reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology, show pretty clearly that breaks taken earlier in the shift led to better outcomes than those taken later.

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“We found that when more hours had elapsed since the beginning of the work shift, fewer resources and more symptoms of poor health were reported after a break,” they write. “Therefore, breaks later in the day seem to be less effective. . . .”

The findings align with previous conceptual work arguing for the “front-loading of rest breaks” over a schedule that spaced out breaks evenly throughout the day. Obviously you don’t want to take a break right when you get to the office. But the general idea is that breaking early keeps your faculties near the high settings they had when the day began, so by the time the work day is done, they won’t have dipped so drastically.

2. Short Breaks Can Be Just As Powerful As Long Ones

A natural worry with an early break schedule is that it will prevent you from getting into a work groove. But breaks need not be long to be effective. The past two years have produced research on the undersized might of micro-breaks, typically defined as a break that’s less than 10 minutes. In fact, even 60 seconds away from a task can do the trick.

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A survey of 124 full-time office workers in Australia—administrators, middle managers, marketing folks, and the like—found that micro-breaks reduced self-reported fatigue and increased vitality over the course of a work day. Twenty-one tiny tasks, from going to the bathroom to browsing the interwebs to staring out the window to having a smoke seemed to improve well-being. In a 2014 issue of the Journal of Vocational Behavior, the researchers who conducted the study argue that “supervisors should give employees permission as well as provide encouragement and positive reinforcement to take micro-breaks.”

Virginia Commonwealth University doctoral candidate Andrew Bennett reached a similar conclusion in a 2015 dissertation. Using an experimental approach, Bennett simulated work fatigue in a lab, then gave test participants a one-, five-, or nine-minute break that involved watching a funny video, watching a meditation video, or doing a new task. Across the board, with few exceptions, he found that the minute-long break offered comparable (though not always superior) benefits to the longer breaks in terms of reducing fatigue, increasing vigor, or sharpening attention.

“In other words, the notion that ‘more is better’ when it comes to short breaks during work time may not be true,” he writes.

For the most part, one-minute micro-breaks offered comparable benefits to fatigue, vigor, and attention as longer ones.Via Andrew Bennett (2015)

3. What You Do Is Less Important Than What You Want To Do

The instinct during a break is to do anything but work. Sure enough, in his experiment, Bennett found that people who detached from work during their break by watching a funny video reported less fatigue, higher vigor, and increased attention. The video clips were from Saturday Night Live, so it’s not even necessary for them to be funny to be an effective distraction.

But zoning out isn’t the only refreshing break option. Bennett found that, for some people, doing another work-related task has its own benefits—namely, increased attention and reduced fatigue. While he called this finding “surprising,” he’s not the first to reach it. A 2011 study of 214 professional and clerical workers found that eight common work-related tasks gave them a boost of post-break vitality without making them more tired. These tasks tended to fall under the categories of learning something work-related, reflecting on job performance or meaning, or improving relationships with colleagues—in other works, taking a bit of down time to get better at the job they do the rest of the time.

“In sum,” write the researchers, “what matters most for managing human energy at work appears to be strategies people pursue in the doing of their work.”

What both types of breaks share, whether or not they’re related to work, is that they give the person some enjoyment. In their 2015 paper, Hunter and Wu support this lesson. They found no relationship between low-effort activities and worker recovery, for instance, but when employees did activities they “preferred” during breaks—whatever those might be—the results were increased job satisfaction and decreased exhaustion. It’s your time. So long as it’s SFW, do what you like.

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4. Walks Can Boost Creativity

If you’re looking for tips on what to do during a break, you could do a lot worse than an old-fashioned walk around the block or pacing around the office—especially if your job requires a good deal of creativity.

In one recent experiment, part of a larger study on the creative impact of walking, researchers gathered 40 test participants and put them in four different situations. Some sat inside, some walked on a treadmill inside, some sat outside, and some walked outside. Afterwards, the participants generated analogies for a series of prompts. Whether outdoor or indoor, the people who had walked around came up with responses judged as being higher quality or especially novel.

Test participants who walked (either inside or outdoors) produced more creative analogies than those who sat down.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition

“Walking is an easy-to-implement strategy to increase appropriate novel idea generation,” the researchers write in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. “When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.”

And hey, if you can’t get away from the desk all day, give a treadmill desk a try.

5. And Nature Walks Can Boost Attention

While you’re up and about on break, take a stroll through a nearby park if possible. It will do wonders for your attention. The restorative power of nature on the tired mind is one of the strongest findings in modern psychology. Time and again, test participants who walked through a tree-filled landscape performed better on cognitive attention tasks than others who took a walk through a common city environment. Whereas active urban streets require additional mental resources, nature is thought to give the mind a breather.

If you can’t get out of the office, or if you’re more the micro-break type, find yourself some trees on the street or a neighboring roof. Writing in the Journal of Environmental Psychology earlier this year, Australia-based researchers report that a 40-second glimpse of an image of a flowering green roof gave test participants a boost on an attention task, compared with participants who looked at a picture of a plain old concrete roof. “[M]icro-break views of a green roof could help employees top-up their attention resources as they become depleted in the workplace,” they report.

A 40-second glance at a green roof produced measurable benefits, compared with a quick look at a concrete one.Journal of Environmental Psychology

And if your views are no good, or you don’t have one, staring at a desk plant can give your productivity a little bump, too.

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6. Don’t Get Pressured Into Lunch Plans

Lunch is the longest break of the day, but that doesn’t automatically make it the most refreshing one. What matters most, according to one new study, is whether or not you decide for yourself how to spend that time.

For the study, 100 workers completed questionnaires about their lunch breaks for 10 straight work days. These participants reported what they did for lunch (did they socialize, relax, or even work a little?), how much autonomy they had over the break (could they go where they wanted or was some activity or destination required of them?), and how tired they felt at the end of the day.

Generally speaking, the researchers found that as autonomy increased, fatigue declined. For employees who spent their lunch socializing or working, that outcome makes sense: If you spend all of lunch chatting or doing tasks you didn’t pick for yourself, it might be just as tiring as regular work. (For people who relaxed during lunch, meanwhile, high levels of autonomy didn’t really make a difference.) The lesson here—in keeping with some findings from above—is that workers who got to choose how they spent lunch found themselves more energized afterward.

“[O]ur results show that employees should be aware of what they do during their lunch breaks,” they conclude in a 2014 issue of the Academy of Management Journal, “as even seemingly inconsequential activity choices made during the lunch break can impact their fatigue at the end of the day.”

For workers with high autonomy, social and work-related lunch breaks produced noticeable declines in fatigue; for those with low autonomy, the opposite was true.Academy of Management Journal

7. The Perfect Nap Is 10 To 20 Minutes

Should you be lucky enough to have a rest area in your office, or a George Costanza-style sleeper desk, you might be tempted to catch some shuteye during a break. But make sure you get the timing right: Snooze too long, and you’ll be even more tired than before.

A 2006 study in the journal Sleep found 10 minutes to be the ideal nap length. Five minutes was too short to get any benefits. Half an hour put you so far out you had a “period of impaired alertness” afterward. But 10 minutes led to immediate improvements in fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance lasting more than two hours.

That research found a 20-minute nap to be productive, too, once you got past a groggy period of a half hour or so. Some newer evidence lends additional support to that length. A trio of Japan-based researchers reports that test participants who took a 20-minute siesta in a laboratory showed improvements on a task-switching test after they woke up—though it’s worth noting that they got a 15-minute post-nap recovery period first.

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“This original finding in the switching task implies that a short afternoon nap could reduce switching errors and could improve work efficiency in real occupational settings since the results of a short nap in the lab can be generalized to real work operations,” the researchers conclude in a 2013 issue of the journal Sleep and Biological Rhythm.

On that note—can someone get the lights?

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).

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