Use breaks to your advantage: The key to higher productivity in everyday working life

Boost productivity with … breaks

More and more to do. Less and less time and resources to cope with the mountain of tasks. Many are all-too-familiar with this challenge. In no particular order, I write about the methods that help me to complete important tasks on time. This time, it’s about taking breaks.

It’s impossible to maintain constant productivity without breaks. Hardly a controversial statement, right?  True! After all, it resonates with both personal experience and a wealth of research indicating that breaks enhance our energy levels and mitigate exhaustion.

At the same time, breaks often get a bad press, and we often feel as if we’ve been “caught” doing something illicit if we’re discovered chatting with colleagues by the coffee machine or gazing wistfully out the window for what might be deemed just a bit too long. This feeling may be triggered by a disapproving look from someone else, or by our own internal monologue whispering to us “Dillydallying won’t get the job done” or “Time is money, so speed up.” This often prompts us to return to our tasks prematurely. Because surely, the logic goes, investing more time in work leads to getting more done, right?

Pause for performance: Understanding the need for breaks

We start each day with a finite amount of physical and mental energy at our disposal. Once our batteries are drained, we become tired, worn out, or stressed. If we continue to work in this state, it impacts our well-being and job performance negatively, resulting in poor concentration, more mistakes, and much more time to finish tasks.

Contrary to popular belief, the very thing we think cements our status as high achievers can impair our performance. Research published in the “Journal of Applied Psychology”  showed that executives who failed to take adequate breaks in the evening were less effective the following day. Conversely, employees reported that well-rested managers had more energy and leadership effectiveness. The Harvard Business Manager, which cited the study, aptly titled the article “Work at Night, Fail by Morning.”

Perfect Breaks: Mastering the right timing and duration

Our mental energy ebbs and flows systematically throughout the day. Following a period of heightened alertness lasting approximately 90 minutes, we experience a downturn that persists for around twenty minutes. One 2021 study suggests that the most productive individuals adhere to this so-called ultradian rhythm, taking a 26-minute break or engaging in defocusing activities every 112 minutes of work.1

You don’t necessarily have to follow such a strict regimen of focus periods and breaks, but taking regular, short breaks is crucial for maintaining concentration and productivity. (As I write this article, I’m employing the “Pomodoro Technique,” working for 25 or 30 minutes followed by a five-minute micro-break where I stand up and make myself a cup of tea before continuing in the same cycle. Others may opt for longer bouts of focused work paired with more extended breaks—it’s worth experimenting to find what works best for you.)

It is equally important to take at least one extended break to recharge your own batteries. Typically, this is your lunch break. For those who have a day packed with back-to-back meetings, rushing from one client to the next, and pushing through their slumps, scheduling dedicated break times in your calendar can be a helpful strategy.

The best place to take a break (hint: forget social media)

The most popular break ‘room’ isn’t a physical space at all. Many prefer to spend their downtime scrolling through the internet and social media right at their desks. This habit, though common, isn’t ideal. A study involving Korean workers indicated that scrolling can contribute more to emotional fatigue than it does to mental rejuvenation.2 Furthermore, an analysis of over 80 scientific studies on breaks found that the most restorative breaks are those taken away from the desk, preferably outdoors amidst nature.3

The reason lies in the panoramic view we gain when we gaze upon the distant outdoors. “Our mental focus follows our visual focus, so the latter is vital to replenish your mental energy”, says productivity expert Christian Poensgen. A short stroll post-lunch can thus play a crucial role in conquering the post-lunch slump. “The best breaks have two ingredients: detachment and autonomy. (…) Get away from your desk, leave your smartphone there, and avoid talking about work throughout lunch.”

Not all pauses are created equal: The Seven Types of Rest

The type of break that best rejuvenates us can vary from day to day. It isn’t always about taking a walk or getting enough sleep the previous night; sometimes other forms of restoration are necessary. Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith speaks of “7 types of rest”4:

  • Sensory rest: such as phone-free times/breaks or retreating into quietness
  • Mental rest: engaging in low-concentration activities
  • Social rest: seeking out energizing interactions and avoiding energy-draining meetings
  • Emotional rest: being able to express feelings freely, being authentic, and limiting people-pleasing behavior
  • Creative rest: recharging by spending time in nature or appreciating art
  • Spiritual rest: fulfilling our need for belonging and purpose, for example, through close friendships, volunteer work, religion, etc.
  • Physical rest (both active & passive): including sport, sleep, and relaxation exercises.

But, but, but….!

Far from making us less productive, breaks actually enhance our ability to feel better and perform at our best. By setting an example at work through consistent break-taking and allowing for flexibility, we can help eliminate the possible stigma and feelings of guilt surrounding the need for rest.

During times of high stress when I feel I really cannot afford to take breaks, I often turn to a quote from Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball (…).”5 Indeed!


  1. Dr. Christian Poensgen, The surprising secret to joining the top 10% (The 90-Minute-Defocus rule),
  2. Effects of breaks on regaining vitality at work: An empirical comparison of ‘conventional’ and ‘smart phone’ breaks – ScienceDirect, in: Computers in Human Behavior, April 2016.
  3. How to take better breaks at work according to research, in: Harvard Business Review, May 2023.
  4. I first read about the concept of the “seven types of rest” in a LinkedIn post by Hans Rusinek, University of St. Gallen:
  5. Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals“, 2022.

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