Being too busy to take a break is a sure-fire sign that you need to slow down and press pause; here are the top five benefits of adding regular breaks into your working day
When you’re striving to hit a deadline, or a tough challenge has got you feeling the pressure, it can be tempting to force yourself to focus well past the point of fatigue.
But taking a much-needed break is essential if you want to perform at your best: a 2011 University of Illinois study found that the human brain’s attentional resources drop after a long period of focusing on a single task, decreasing our ability to focus and hindering performance. “When faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task,” said lead researcher professor Alejandro Lleras.
The amount of break time you are legally entitled to depends on the country in which you’re working; in the UK, workers have the right to one uninterrupted 20-minute break per day if they work more than six hours a day. Workers also have the right to 11 hours’ rest between working days. Your employer might stipulate break schedules; you should be able to check these in policy statements available on your company intranet or HR system.
The scientific consensus on the optimum break length varies: some advocate breaks every 90 minutes (in line with your ultradian rhythm), every 25 minutes (if you’re a fan of the Pomodoro Technique), or every 52 minutes (suggested to be the optimum concentration period by a group of Latvian companies).
Here, we round up the most compelling reasons to take regular, well-timed breaks during your working day.
1. Breaks help you to process and retain information
Our brains have two functioning modes: focused, and ‘diffused’. When operating in diffused mode, our brain is more relaxed and in a ‘daydream’ type state. Some studies have shown that we solve our most difficult problems when we’re in this diffused state – for example, how many times have you happened upon a great idea when you’re daydreaming in the shower? Next time you have a difficult problem to solve, try letting your brain wander and find its own solution, instead of forcing yourself to find the answer.
2. You’ll get a better sense of the bigger picture
When you’re focused on the minutiae of a complex task, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the bigger, more strategic picture. Take a break, step back, and reassess your goals and priorities to make sure that you’re giving your attention to the right tasks and projects. Being able to see this broader view is particularly important for managers, who need to maintain their focus on strategic goals and not be distracted by process-driven tasks that could be delegated to other members of their team.
3. You’ll be more creative
“Never taking a break from very careful thought work actually reduces your ability to be creative,” says Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at the University of California, Davis. “It sort of exhausts your cognitive capacity and you’re not able to make the creative connections you can if your brain is more rested. If you’re skipping lunch to continue to push forward in a very intense cognitive capacity, then you’re probably not doing yourself any favours.” Giving your brain time to rest and recharge – just as an athlete would allow their body to rest after a race or training session – will energise you for the next task ahead.
4. Breaks can help you cultivate healthier habits
When you’re busy and stressed, healthy habits – such as eating nutritious meals, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep – can easily fall by the wayside. Taking a proper lunch break gives you time to incorporate these healthy habits into your normal working day, whether that’s making time to prepare and eat a meal that’s packed with fruit and vegetables (rather than grabbing a store-bought sandwich or ready meal), or running or walking outside. You could even try to squeeze in a 20-minute nap, which will clear space in your working memory for new information, and help you commit new knowledge to your long-term memory.
Further reading: How does exercise improve work productivity?
Taking regular breaks away from your computer or smartphone screen can also help to prevent computer vision syndrome, which commonly manifests as eye strain and headaches. Medical professionals recommend looking away from your screen every 20 minutes and looking at something around 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
5. Taking regular breaks helps you be more productive
Instituting a schedule of regular breaks will also give you a series of mini deadlines to work towards, which can spur you on to finish a task more quickly. And all the benefits of regular breaks that we’ve already discussed – helping you to retain information, understand the bigger picture, cultivate your creativity, and embrace healthier habits – will ultimately combine to enable you to work more productively and effectively.
As essayist Tim Kreider noted in the New York Times in 2012: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
This article was first published in April 2015. It was updated in August 2019 for freshness, clarity and accuracy.