How Breaks Make You More Productive

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

“Sitting is the new smoking,” Leslie Vernick, a life coach, licensed counselor and client of mine, told me back in January as we discussed our work styles.

I did a double take. I mean,  we all know how hazardous smoking is to our health. Since I spend long hours at my desk every day, sometimes only getting up a few times throughout the day, I’m definitely a sitting addict. Not to mention that I had developed a pain in my leg, which I sRetro kitchen timer Royalty Free Stock Imageuspected was from crossing my legs while I was at my desk. When I tensed up during the day, I tensed that specific muscle. The pain never left, even on my days off.

I took Leslie’s comment seriously and told everyone in the office that we needed stretching breaks every hour. We all agreed that would be good for us on many levels.I even researched standup desks but found most of them expensive and sort of Rube Goldberg in design. Somehow we never instituted the habit of taking stretch breaks but instead remained in our rut of sitting at our computers for long hours.

Then, this past Friday, Rachelle Gardner mentioned in a staff meeting that studies show if we work full-out for 90 minutes and then take a break, we will be much more effective. Inspired by her  comment and reminded of my failure to institute stretch breaks, I put a kitchen timer on my desk and declared a break every 90 minutes for the rest of the day. (With everyone’s approval, of course.) I’m committed to continuing in that vein not only because I’m convinced we’ll be healthier for taking the break, but also because I think we’ll be more effective at our jobs.

In his book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz explains how we’re most productive when we have periods of high focus followed by rest.

“Instead we live in a gray zone, constantly juggling activities, but rarely fully engaging in any of them or fully disengaging from any of them. The consequence is that we settle for a pale version of the possible.” –Tony Schwartz

While I’d diagnose myself as working in the gray zone and grasp that taking breaks is a good direction to go physically, I confess to being a bit worried about what it will do for my work output. I know it’s supposed to enable me to concentrate more intensely and therefore be more productive, but I can feel the pull of not stopping at the end of 90 minutes even now as I just think about such a scenario. If I’m on a roll and the end of a task is in sight, I know me well enough to realize I’ll probably push through sans the break.

But new habits aren’t formed in a day. I want to be more of a non-sitter, improve my concentration, move out of the gray zone, and be more productive. How about you?

If you’d like to read Rachelle’s blogs on this subject (including links to explore the topic more) check them out here and here.

Do you enforce breaks for yourself? What do you do during your breaks? In what ways have they helped you to be productive?

If you’re like me and an inveterate push-through-to-the-end type of person, what excuses keep you from taking regular breaks? What do you need to do to break your old habits?

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81 Comments

  • You can do it Janet! Give yourself a break in more ways than one.
    It’s easy to find the humor in this post as I edit into the wee morning hours again. Now I will walk to the open window and stretch as I listen to a mockingbird singing his midnight tune by the light of the milky moon. :-)
    I feel the urge to cram in my most productive writing when my daughter is in school, but of course other tasks rise up and detonate that idea. That’s why night writing is the best for me. Stretching before I hit the hay is imperative. During the day I walk a block or visit the local barista who knows me by name (blush).

  • megan says:

    kind of hard for me to break the old habits, and I dont want to actually

  • Janet, This post is so timely (no pun intended). With my children grown and gone, I am drawn to spend more and more time at my computer writing. I noticed that after several years of pushing through long hours, I was really getting worn down and resolved to make getting enough sleep every night a top priority. I know that I am a morning person, although my parents would never have said that during my teen years! Going to bed early and making sure I am rested helps me give my writing my best focus. I can get so much more done after a good night’s rest.
    However, there is still that very real need for physical breaks poking at me. That is one I am working on. Okay. That is one I have been thinking about. Thanks for this post and the related links!

  • Great post, Janet, and a great reminder that getting up and moving is good for both our bodies and our minds. My young children are my built-in timer, so I usually don’t get more than an hour’s worth of work in a stretch (on a good day). On those rare occasions when I find myself with several hours alone, I love to head off to Starbucks. The pastry case is a great motivator to get up and walk to the counter. ;)

  • I read Rachelle’s blogs on this when she first posted them and realized it was something I had already seen in my editing business–I was good for almost 90 minutes, and then I needed a break.

    I started really paying attention and found that I did get more done when I listened to my body telling me it needed to pause. And sometimes it wasn’t a long pause. Just enough to start another load of laundry, maybe clean up the kitchen or get dinner in the oven, or twenty minutes playing with my youngest. Anything that got me up and moving some.

    As a WAHM, the breaks are often forced on me by kids who need something or have the nerve to want to eat. I do think that in the future, long down the road when I don’t have the kids around, I will need to schedule in breaks. I like your idea of the timer, Janet.

    My favorite thing to do on a break is read! Of course, there’s not much movement in that, just from my computer chair to my favorite chair. But the mental break helps too.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Sally, how interesting that your concentration time is about 90 minutes. :) I love that you’re able to refresh playing with your kids. I hope I can do the same when mine are home for summer in a few weeks. :)

      • Jeanne, sometimes my concentration is just over an hour. I’ve found two reasons for that–what I’m doing isn’t very interesting or I’m tired. Or both. So it does vary.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Sally, reading is one of the most relaxing activities we can engage in. That’s why studies have found that reading 10 minutes it bedtime makes us go to sleep more quickly and sleep longer. You might add a few stretches during your break, just to say “hello, I know you’re here” to your body.

      • I’ve tried to read while I’m on the elliptical, but it just never worked. Can’t do those two things at once.

        I’ve heard reading before bed is relaxing, but I find I get so into books that I stay up until one or two, finishing them. Which isn’t so relaxing. :) Need a little discipline there.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Sally, I hear you regarding staying up too late reading. I was guilty of that last week, but I’m trying to be more disciplined this week. Funny how this whole conversation comes down to discipline, isn’t it?

      • Funny–and frustrating!

    • What is with kids and food? Gah!! “Here, have an Oreo, put some ketchup on it and call it lunch.”

      Of course *I* grow my OWN spelt that I make into flour and hand craft all our bread every morning at 4am. And my pet unicorn helps me.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I do love to finish and check things off my list!

    Even so, I think God is giving me a built in timer via the arthritis in my right hip. Pain is a great motivator to get up and move!

    If you need a built in timer, you can kill two birds with one stone by drinking more water. The water is good for you and apparently so is getting up to tinkle. Just a thought . . .

  • I don’t like to take breaks. Once I’m revved up and ready to go, I don’t like to stop. I don’t even take a lunch break during the day, which I know is unhealthy and probably illegal. Turns out, not taking breaks is also a great way to get burned out really fast, so, there’s that. Guess I should stand up once in a while.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Lisa, I don’t take a lunch break either. Hence the need to stop every 90 minutes, if only to get up, stretch, grab some more water, and trot off to the bathroom.

  • Christine M. says:

    I break for lunch and that’s about it. By then, my body needs it. I’m going to try your suggestion and stretch every 90 minutes just to see if it works. Thanks! =}

  • Rob Carmack says:

    For the past few months, I’ve been using the Pomodoro method with an app on my desktop. The method calls for 25 minutes of uninterrupted work followed by a five-minute break. An alarm goes off at the 25 minute mark, and I stop working, stand up, and walk a lap around the building. It’s basically the time-management version of running wind sprints. On the days that I’ve been disciplined to do this all day long, I have stayed fresh and been productive longer than on days that I press through without stopping.

    Great post, Janet! Also, you should check out A.J. Jacobs’ book “Drop Dead Healthy.” One of the sections deals with the “sitting is the new smoking” concept, so he decides to write the entire book while walking on a treadmill.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Rob, thanks for the recommended book. It sounds like one that would encourage me to keep on. I can’t imagine working on a treadmill, but I know several people who do that.

  • lisa says:

    This is such a great tip. I tend to want to push through, but weariness and burnout catch up to me every time! The funny thing is, when I do enforce breaks on myself, usually some new insight pops into my head that makes whatever I’m doing even better :)

  • Jeanne T says:

    Janet, I appreciate this post. I’ve read Rachelle’s posts. I used them when I was fast-drafting my novel, but got out of the habit when my writing habits changed (kids home for summer will do that). I need to get back to taking breaks. I’m going to start setting a timer again for any writing I do. My chair has grooves in it from all the sitting I’ve done. Maybe they need a break too. :)

    When I take a break, I usually get up and work on a to-do on my list or take a walk, if it’s not too warm or chilly outside.

    I hadn’t thought about sitting being the 2013 version of smoking. That’s a reality check. Thanks for sharing this today!

  • Janet, thanks for the great reminder about breaks. I love the idea of a standup desk, but I’m not sure it’s for me. I’d like to hear from those folks who use them and like them.

    I do use a timer, though I didn’t always. I also use a footstool as I work at my desk so my feet are constantly elevated. It was hard to make myself take breaks because I, too, like to push through a task until finished, but now I just reward myself with a little bite of chocolate. Oh, alright. Sometimes, more than a bite! ;)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cynthia, I love that you reward yourself when you’ve completed a big task. I find taking a break feels like a reward in and of itself. Ah, stand up, take some deep breaths…It feels like surfacing when you’ve been submerged, which of course, I have been.

  • Larry says:

    A decent fellow I know works for Google, and they have very innovative work-place policies.

    Basically, as long as the project you are working on is getting accomplished, if one needs to take a mid-day nap to get recharged, it’s perfectly acceptable.

    Who would have thought? Motivated, non-stressed employees getting work done? :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I know, what a concept, eh–keep your employees motivated and unstressed.
      I’m a born napper. I remember when my mother explained to me the difference between kindergarten and first grade was that I’d go to school all day.
      My response? “But when will I take my nap?”
      My mom assured me I’d be old enough that I wouldn’t need a nap. I clarified that I would, indeed, still need a nap.
      And so I do. But I very seldom take one.

      • Jeanne T says:

        I didn’t come to appreciate the value and necessity of naps until I faced years of insomnia. Then, cat naps became my sanity-keeper. :) I still love them.

  • I have vowed to myself that I will start moving around, now that the snow is gone. Which is hard, because once I’m immersed in my writing, the zombie apocalypse could start and I yell at the legion of living dead to be quiet because, hello, the clandestine slave auction just started and our hero is in big trouble.(And NO, I would not use my inside voice.)

    A writer’s enthusiasm, creativity and drive are often at odds with movement. But thankfully, my lawn is covered in fall’s leaves and my perennials are peeping up.
    Which begs the question…what am I doing still typing?

  • I can only go so long without water and I drink a ton of it, so that’s a natural “get up and go downstairs to refill” stopping point for me. :)

    And yes, Sarah, that does mean more frequent bathroom breaks as well…

  • Norma Horton says:

    I married an ex-rancher, whose nickname is Ranchman the Superhero. He defines athleticism, and is ALWAYS on me about getting up and moving around.

    I work out (pilates and treadmill) five days a week, and try to do one full day outdoors when weather permits. (Last weekend, we hiked five miles, I’ll fly fish Wednesday, and am about to start five months of Combat Gardening since the snow is melting.)

    If you do something repetitive, like the treadmill, and can break your hour into three twenty-minute sessions, recent studies show you get the benefits of your hour, but don’t have to bore yourself silly tromping away. Twenty minutes is enough for me to let dialogue or scenes sort themselves, and I can dash back upstairs to the office to complete the work before I forget my thoughts!

    I have to admit there are times when the writing just FLOWS, and I realize I’ve sat for three hours.

    There has to be a balance somewhere, but I do believe the twenty-minute sessions improve productivity—and I feel a heck of a lot better at the end of the day.

  • Unless I am so close to completion it would be a sin to stop, I take a break. I’ve injured my back multiple times; and like you, if I spend too many days in the chair my leg kills me. It’s also not great on the eyes.

    I get up and do a bit of housework, wander out to the garden, or sometimes just take a quick walk around the cul-de-sac. It also keeps me from sitting there stuffing my face with junk while I’m working. Having a set break encourages me to check out the produce drawer more often. :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, oh, if we’re going to veer into a conversation about snacks, that’s a whole different issue. Getting up from my desk and wandering into the kitchen puts my snack limit in peril.

  • About a week ago a friend told me she wears a pedometer all the time and tries to walk a certain amount every day. I started wearing one and discovered I normally walk from 2 to 4 miles every day just doing normal things like cooking, shopping, walking the dog around the block, and going back and forth in the house. The longest distance was when I did some yard work and the shortest was Saturday when I did a book signing and a lot of driving to and from it. I think I’ll keep wearing the pedometer because it motivates me to move.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Janet, I used to wear a pedometer, but unlike you, I was discouraged by how little I moved every day. So I abandoned the practice. Just goes to show that what motivates one of us, demotivates another.

  • Janet, this is great advice–and it’s very difficult for me to follow. I am definitely a push-through-to-the-end person. Actually, I’ve improved over the years. I used to stay up all night, if needed, in order to finish my tasks, and I would miss meals as well times. Now I’m down to having to make myself take breaks exactly for the reason you mentioned–sitting for long periods is unhealthy. I keep telling myself that, but I’m still not good at stopping. Rachelle’s 90 minute suggestion sounds doable, although I’ll probably start at two hours and work down to the 90 minutes. As you said, breaking old habits is not easy, but thanks to your nudge, I am going to commit to trying as of today. In fact, I’m going to start right now as it’s after 2:30 in the afternoon and I haven’t eaten lunch yet. :)

    Have a wonderful Monday.

  • Sue Harrison says:

    Rachelle was my inspiration to take those needed breaks, too, Janet. My office is upstairs in our house, so a break means a cup of tea and the walk down to the kitchen and back up. Thank you for this post, which is a great reminder to keep focused – on work and on breaks!

  • Donna K Rice says:

    Janet, I do take breaks, but not as regularly as every 90 minutes. Time to get a timer…

    I also found a chair that has been a huge improvement for me. It’s an exercise ball chair. (Found at gaiam.com.) I have ttwo of them for myself in the places I write. Several employees have switched to them, too. They may not be beautiful office furniture, but they are very comfortable. The strange looking chair also makes a great conversation starter with clients. I’ve had several come around the desk to try it out!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Donna, a trainer suggested I try one of those chairs. I guess they force you to keep yourself balanced, which works all kinds of muscles as you sit. I just haven’t taken the time to check them out. Thanks for adding them to the conversation.

      • Donna K Rice says:

        You’ll love it once you get used to it. Don’t try to sit on it for eight hours the first day, however. Start with 2-3 and work up to the whole day. I did discover muscles in my back I didn’t know existed when I first got the chair. :-)

  • I live for breaks! Unfortunately it is usually sitting down in a comfortable chair with a cup of Earl Grey tea!

  • Sometimes I need “creative” breaks. When I finish a project or get to a certain point I treat myself with making something, sewing, or painting. Taking time to create something with my hands tends to fuel my writing and is so much cheaper than therapy :~)

  • Unfortunately, my breaks tend to be mental (“I’ll check Facebook now”) instead of physical (“I’ll actually move my body now”). I really do need to move more.

    My husband and I share a home office. He decided he wanted to start standing while working. It was SO distracting to work next to someone standing! I decided to fix the situation by buying him an elliptical that goes under your desk. You actually sit and pedal while you work. This was great in theory, but you really can’t concentrate on work while sweating. It now sits (unused) under my desk!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Natasha, your comment about the elliptical is one of the reasons I haven’t invested in equipment to get me standing and/or moving while I work. It always seem like such a great idea, and I’m sure I’ll overcome any potential problems because of the long-term benefit. Not so.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I take breaks; they’re called eating and sleeping.

    Seriously though, usually I take a break from one thing to do something else. If possible I switch from a mental activity to do a physical activity or a writing project to do a web project. Occasionally a break involves watching a favorite TV show (but those breaks only happen in the evening).

  • Sherry Kyle says:

    My physical therapist says we need to stand every 20 minutes for our stomach muscles to stay engaged, otherwise they want to pooch out. UGH! I’ve really taken this to heart. I get up to take a drink of water, do a quick chore, or answer the phone if I’m at a good spot to take a break. Movement is so important for good health!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Sherry, I try to get up and walk to a different spot in the office when I have a longer, don’t-need-to-take-notes phone call. I enjoy standing out on the deck for the call when the weather is nice. Every little bit of movement helps, I figure.

  • Julie Sunne says:

    I struggle with taking breaks as well, but I have found myself more productive if I do. I also stand up for a large chunk of my day. Since I’m a poor writer :) I couldn’t afford to buy a standup desk, so my sweet husband built me a computer podium that sits on my regular desk and raises my laptop to a standing height. I love it!

    When I worked in a psychiatrist’s office years ago and couldn’t stand while doing my work, I’d take a 30 minute walk everyday during lunch.

    Stick with your break schedule, Janet. Let it become a habit. You won’t regret it.

  • I completely agree. I am much more productive if I take breaks every ninety minutes or so.

  • Sharyn Kopf says:

    The amount of time I spend sitting has been bothering me for some time, Janet. Fortunately, I have a cheap, adjustable desk, kind of like this one, if the link goes through: http://www.grabcart.com/product/Electronics/Laptop-accessories/fishingsale4-wnsm228/Winsome-Trading-93427-Eric-Laptop-Cartand-44-Adjustable-Height-with-Metal-Leg

    It’s more of an addition to office furniture rather than a replacement, but would work to get people on their feet, at least part of the time!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Sharyn, that looks like a great way to work standing for awhile and then go back to sitting. Thanks for the link. I like the price! It isn’t much of a gamble to try it out.

  • Barbara says:

    A number of years ago the Lord decided to make it impossible for me NOT to take breaks from my keyboard every 1-1/2 to 2 hours. I recommend voluntary over imposed! Prior to the imposition, I worked six days a week, every minute allowed, plus some that weren’t. My children claimed they recognized me more from the back of my head (as I sat at the computer) than from the front. I had read the literature recommending breaks, seen the statistics, but kept my nose to the grindstone. Then I was in a car accident which mangled my wrist, severing my hand in the process. The doctor was amazing (with God’s help) and I have two good working hands, but the one injured in the accident causes intense pain if I keyboard more than two hours at a time. Once begun, the pain does not go away when I take a break, thus if I want to work more than two hours, I must get up and rest my wrist every 90 minutes. In my quiet moments, I knew I was not as accessible as I should be. This forced break has been a blessing. Not only can I clear my head, but I am interrupted less often because everyone knows I’m going to emerge from my office every 90 minutes.

  • donnie and doodle says:

    . . . I’m sorry I was so late responding to your blog.

    I was taking a break. A really long one!

  • Oxygenating the brain is the single most effective strategy in maintaining brain health as we age. That gets me moving!

  • I needed to hear this today. In college we all knew that if you studied for 15 minutes and then took a short two minute break – the mind would retain more information. I’ve always known that breaks were good – but….

    While I’ve always loved to write – I wasn’t free to write until seven years ago. My three children were finally on their own, I had concluded three businesses, our finances allowed me to attend writer’s conferences and I had quiet time in my office. I am so excited to be part of this wonderful world of writing that sitting at my desk is pure joy. When I have an idea and I’m excited about the writing – I don’t even stop to look at the clock. Yet….like you Janet…I have experienced leg cramps, pains and back issues.

    I do try to take breaks but often merely stand up to walk out, experience a moment of inspiration and plop back in my chair. This process has convinced me that my brain must be located in my behind. Every time I relieve the pressure – I experience inspiration. (Hum…that should make me want to get up more….)

    My son hooked my laptop to my main computer so they are always sharing info. Now when I know I MUST get up, I grab my laptop and continue working while walking around. Sigh….the joys….the pain….the determination…..I’m so happy to be an author :)

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