The New Science of Taking a Break

The New Science of Taking a Break

It’s well established by now that employees need to take breaks throughout the day to remain productive at their work and mitigate stress and the risk of burnout. The question these days is how individuals (or organizations) to structure work and break times to maximize productivity. Fast Company’s Stephanie Vozza takes a brief look at some of the techniques out there for dividing up ones workday:

Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, … suggests taking a break every 75 and 90 minutes. “That’s the period of time where you can concentrate and get a lot of work done, he says. “We know that because we have studied professional musicians, who are most productive when they practice for this amount of time. It’s also the amount of time of most college classes.” …

Sometimes you don’t have an hour and a half to work, and the good news is you can work in shorter spurts and reap the benefits of breaks. An experiment by the software startup Draugiem Group using time-tracking app DeskTime found that the most productive workers took regular and frequent breaks, working in 52-minute sprints with 17-minute breaks. The employees got more done without working longer hours, and regular breaks made them more efficient.

The conclusion of the Draugiem Group experiment was that break structures actually had a greater impact on employees’ output than how many hours they worked: In other words, a ten-hour day of unstructured, unfocused work with no breaks is less productive than a shorter day that follows the sprint-and-break cycle.

On the latest CEB Talent Angle Podcast, Scott Hafford, CEO of Complete Intelligence and author of Activate Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Success highlights another reason why breaks are important: for reducing stress. “In the afternoon, when your cortisol levels rise to a state where you’re feeling a little bit stressed out, a little bit tired, that’s a really bad time to make a decision,” Hafford says, “unless you’ve [taken a break or refreshed your brain].”

Furthermore, if you have constantly high levels of cortisol, associated with high stress, Hafford warns that this can have negative implications for your long-term health, and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems. He also recommends making sure, when stressed, to take a break instead of responding immediately to annoying or upsetting emails. Walking away allows stressor hormones to come down and have less influence on your response.