When was your last break?
The old adage, “Give me a break” couldn’t be more relevant in our world and workplaces, whether shared or remote, than at this time.
Recent research shows that stress levels among American workers have never been higher, with nearly 70% of U.S. workers stating that COVID-19 is the most stressful time of their entire career, more so than during the September 11 terror attacks and the 2008 Great Recession. At the same time, we are working more hours. Since mid-March 2020, the average workday has increased by almost 40% in the U.S. or an extra 3 hours, which means nearly half of Americans are working 11-hour days, the largest increase in the world. And while we’re working more, many of us are feeling less productive — 62% of workers recently reported losing at least one hour a day in productivity due to COVID-19 related stress, with 32% losing more than two hours per day.
This combination of high stress, longer work hours and a lack of productivity can take a tremendous toll on both our physical and mental health. Now more than ever, we are all desperately in need of a break.
Why is it so hard to take a break?
There is well-established evidence that periods of rest are linked to greater productivity. According to MIT Sloan Lecturer Bob Pozen, when people do a task and then take a break for just 15 minutes, they help their brain consolidate information and retain it better. Even just a 5 minute walk every hour can improve your health and well-being.
Work breaks can lift your mood, combat lethargy without reducing focus and attention, and even dull hunger pangs. Breaks can help you to get more done, reduce decision fatigue, restore motivation (especially for long-term goals) and help you stay on task. Breaks can also raise levels of engagement (correlated with productivity), and increase creativity — including those prized “Aha moments” that feel good and convey inspiration and confidence.
Wouldn’t we all want to do that?
There are many reasons that it’s hard for us to let go, including cultural and self-imposed expectations that are not grounded in facts. We have to let go of worn, misguided perceptions of breaks as indulgences and laziness, and instead see them as the vital daily nutrient they are for productivity, engagement, health, and well-being.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking if you pause to take a break, you’ll lose focus, get less done, be passed over for a promotion, or be less successful. Conversely, when we don’t take downtime to recharge, we’re less efficient, make mistakes, and are less engaged with what we are doing.
Here are three steps to prioritizing time for yourself to recharge:
1. Determine what’s possible — While we may not be able to take the vacation of our dreams or even a simple getaway right now, it’s important to find ways to take time — whether it be a day, an hour, or even just a minute — to consciously incorporate a break into our daily routine. If you can take a day off from work or a social-distanced vacation — wonderful. If “time off” for you looks like a quick walk without kids, pets, or partners — great. Even if your break consists of a quick 60-second breathing exercise in the bathroom — the fact that you’ve consciously chosen to recharge (without any guilt!) is what matters most.
When we plan for a break, we double our return by prioritizing positive emotions — which are central to our authentic happiness and satisfaction in life — those simple feelings such as appreciation, joy, serenity, interest, awe, hope, excitement, and freedom.
2. Uncover what nourishes you — Let your creativity spark new ways of stepping off the treadmill of life, whether at work or home. Here are just a few ideas of ways we can take a short break and prioritize positive emotions.
Walk, hike or do an exercise you enjoy
Get outdoors to connect with nature (induces calm state) or a streetscape (amps up engagement)
Change your environment — move to another room or go outside
Have lunch or a healthy snack away from your desk
Take a few slow, deep breaths
Enjoy your favorite beverage (coffee and water cooler breaks are long-standing rituals and can be done virtually)
Play an instrument or sing
Host a virtual dance party (15–30 minutes)
Look at adorable animal photos
Call or text a friend or coworker
Plan or attend a regularly scheduled virtual group meditation with friends or coworkers
Do a random act of kindness
Listen to music, podcast, or book — check out this short audio exercise from my team on creating a mental vacation
Watch a funny video clip and laugh like a kid
Stand up and stretch or shake your body
Pet an animal or walk your dog
Play outside with your kids or like a kid
Do whatever makes you feel nurtured and cared for
Make sure to schedule your breaks with reminders on your calendar and phone — and don’t ignore them.
3. Consider microbreaks
If you can’t take a break at a certain time, consider microbreaks — a few seconds to several minutes to help you restore depleted energy, focus and joy. This can be as simple as switching your work task to a different one, or from solitary to interacting with a co-worker. You can also exercise your eyes by practicing the 20–20–20 rule: Every 20 minutes take a 20-second break to look at an object 20 feet away from you.
If feeling stressed or anxious, take a simple break by practicing orienting to return to a state of natural presence. In his book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, Oren Jay Sofer describes how to orient yourself by taking 30 seconds to a few minutes to pause and look around where you are, moving your head, up and down, side to side, letting your eyes explore with curiosity what you see. Do you notice anything different that you usually don’t see? Doing this activates the ventral vagus nerve and signals our brain that we are safe from danger.
Taking time off to support our mental health and well-being has never been more important — particularly as our time “on” often looks a lot like our time “off”. As you experiment with different types of work breaks, notice which ones help you renew and refresh more than others. Tune into how you feel during and after some time off. What do you notice over a longer period of time? Remember that you can be more productive, engaged, creative and happy when you give yourself regular time off, and even short breaks are restorative if time is limited. Above all, be sure to enjoy your time without guilt — your body and mind will thank you.