Productivity Tip: Take a break

In the past couple of installments of TUAW's productivity tips, I've discussed a number of ways to keep you focused on your tasks. Managing those tasks will be the next big-picture topic, but this week I wanted to keep it short and simple, just like your breaks should be.

Yes, you should take breaks, especially if you are a knowledge worker and/or you have to focus on tasks which require a great deal of problem solving. There's a lot of evidence that shows our brains need frequent rest in order to function at their best, so don't skimp on the breaks even if you are worried about a deadline.

Why is this important?

Aside from how you should really be taking a vacation, your brain can suffer from decision fatigue. While you're busy processing your inbox or responding to emails, your brain is getting quite the electro-chemical workout. As with any of our organs, after a while it tires out. Just like a physical workout, you should allow for a cool-down period to let your brain rejeuvinate itself.

At AOL we're quite fond of naps, too.

Timing breaks

As I discussed in my article on timers, you should aim to take a quick break after a period of intense focus. Pomodoros are set up for this purpose, giving you 25 minutes of task time plus a five-minute break. I've read of 90-minute work sessions followed by a 30-minute break time (which allows time for a walk or run or yoga), but ultimately you'll have to experiment and see what works for you as a person and in your job. I like to take frequent breaks.

The key to timing your breaks is definitely scheduling them around those periods of intensity. Again, your brain gets worn out after too many decisions in a fixed amount of time -- let that thing cool off! The time of your break should be somewhat proportional to the period of intensity, however. Five minutes after 25 makes sense, as does 30 after 90. Taking an hour nap after 20 minutes of email is a bit much, however.

Types of breaks

Now, do you need to rest or do you need to re-energize? One allows things to cool down, while the other is more like a warm up.

Often we just need to rest our eyes, or just stretch to shake off the tightness of sitting for too long. For short breaks I tend to make sure I have a bottle of water, then go gaze out a window for a few minutes. Or, since I work at home, I'll go spend a few minutes washing dishes (a very peaceful activity, honestly). These short breaks help refocus you later, and serve as a brief cool-down for your brain. Be careful not to overdo it; tidying your desk or going to the break room might seem like a quick rest, yet you're still making all sorts of decisions, leading again to decision fatigue.

A better short break fully disengages your brain for a bit. Staring is actually good. Stretching is even better, and there are lots of exercises you can do, even in a cubicle. The more you allow your body to work, the better it will be able to assist your brain. Anything that literally "takes your mind off of things" is good, which means social media checking is likely bad as you're likely to see things which make you angry as well as happy on any given day.

Naps are excellent, but most people don't use them correctly. Here's a great primer, and here are some tips from the Mayo clinic. I have found that a 25-minute or less nap has made me feel more energized in the afternoons if I am not already sleep deprived. If I haven't had enough sleep that day already, I tend to get a headache later and feel sleepier. That said, naps can be very effective when done properly.

I have found a short walk or run, or even time with a Kinect game, helps the afternoon doldrums significantly. A few jumping jacks or standing on your head can also get the blood flowing.

Apps to help

For simple breaks, I like to use Due's timers and have set a 5, 10, and 15 minute timer as default break times. Siri can do this in a pinch as well.

For naps I use Naturespace (which has a timer), or Pzizz, a longtime Mac app which was ported to iOS some time ago. Pzizz is, in my opinion, the best napping app; it guides you into a restful state much like hypnosis, can be set for various times, and can be configured in numerous ways while still using a set of sounds and tones which help lull you to rest. Other TUAWers enthusiastically recommend Andrew Johnson's apps and audiofiles for guided rest periods.

Meditation is a good rest plan, and we've already mentioned a few apps for this. I'm currently using Mind, which is as simple a meditation timer as you're likely to find.

There are also a number of exercise apps on the store, including some niche products like Healthy Break, which adds simple stretches to a break timer. I haven't had much success with these, as I tend to look up things online, learn them, and have a few I do over and over again. It's best to discuss your options with your doctor or trainer (if you're lucky enough to have a trainer).


While you can push through a day with no breaks, you will wind up making worse decisions as time wears on, and as those decisions wear you out. As your productivity and quality of work decrease, you become less efficient.

The best way to combat this: get plenty of rest to begin with, and allow yourself breaks through the day. By setting timers for breaks and having a collection of short activities to break to, you'll set yourself up to stay productive longer than before, with better results.