Take a Break, It’s Productive

Moment of vulnerability: I am really great at burning myself out. I’ve done it many times. 

Let’s be honest: you probably have too. I know I don’t know you, but I do know you’re currently reading a blog written for and by workplace professionals… So I know a little bit. Our work is personal; it requires emotional intelligence, caretaking, and empathy. And that can mean it’s hard to take a break.

But here’s the thing:

We must take breaks.

I learned this the hard way (read: burnout x 3) and I’m currently trying to change. But it hasn’t been easy. So this blog is a little bit for you, and a little bit for me. It’s an opportunity for me to hold myself accountable and to be realistic.

We’ll tackle this topic from the perspectives of The Science and My Experience. Because no matter how many studies I read, part of my brain always tells me, “Nahhhhh, don’t take a break. Just push through.” And the studies don’t usually address that. Here, we will.

By the end, I hope you’ll consider taking more breaks and realize how breaks positively impact you and your productivity. You might not necessarily take the breaks the research tells you to take, but I hope you’ll take the breaks you want and need. And I hope you’ll give yourself grace when you don’t. I hope I’ll give myself grace too.

Why we need breaks

The Science

Our brains and bodies are pretty amazing – and also, they weren’t built for the world we live in today. In this world, we’re always on, always connected, and we can (and must) find answers and solutions immediately. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so grateful for all of these things. And I’m exhausted by them.

Amelia and Emily Nagoski describe this change from an evolutionary perspective in their book, Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle: we have the capacity to push through when something life threatening is happening, like a lion chasing you. We can move quickly, think clearly, and find a way to escape and survive. But in today’s world, our “lions” are our very full inboxes, our unanswered text messages, and our never ending to do lists. In the past, you’d escape the lion and then rest and celebrate your survival! Today, you answer the email and it’s replaced by another. The lions never seem to go away.

Unless we take breaks.

When you take a break, you’re communicating to your brain and body that you’re not in danger, that you don’t need to be using all of your amazing capacity to escape this threat. You’re telling yourself, “I don’t need to use all of my energy to sprint, because I am not in danger.”

Studies show that even a short break can make a difference in your ability to recover and replenish yourself. Pressing pause on your work and allowing yourself to daydream and rest activates your Default Mode Network (DMN), which is a crucial process to help your brain make connections between different ideas. And when you sleep, your brain is able to clear out waste that built up during the day – which means your brain will function better the next day.

So, according to science, rest is productive. When you rest, you aren’t being lazy, you are encouraging your brain to be active in a different way – one that is very beneficial.

My Experience

I studied cognitive psychology in college and will take any opportunity to learn about neurotransmitters, brain anatomy, and how all of it impacts our behaviors. TLDR: I know the science. And still… I don’t always take breaks when I should.

Science tells me that when I’m feeling stuck on a problem, I should go do a “mindless” activity. This will activate my DMN and can help me make connections I wasn’t able to make when I was stuck. But that doesn’t always mean I take a break… because American society tells me that only through pushing harder will I find a solution. I listen to society more than science because, to me, it’s louder.

And yet, when I do take a moment to walk away from a challenging situation, I almost always end up returning to the work feeling fresh and more prepared to find the answer that I’m looking for.

In the last few months, as I’ve become more committed to taking breaks, I feel like I notice their impact more. When I take a break once in a month, I don’t really feel different. But as I’ve consistently taken breaks, I feel like my focus overall is improving. 

To be honest, it may just be a mindset thing for me: when I know I will get a break (because I’ve made it a habit), then I don’t look for excuses to take them. I focus when I need to and know that there will be a break soon.

What breaks can look like

The Science

There have been many studies focused on what counts (and doesn’t count) as rest, and I’m definitely not going to highlight them all here. But here are some of the most common suggestions for The Best Rest, According To Science:

  • Be active. Studies show that physical activity – especially aerobic training – improves functional connectivity between key parts of the brain involved in the DMN and Frontal Executive Network. To make it ridiculously oversimplified: being active helps your brain work better.
  • Daydream. Taking time to complete an undemanding task that allows for daydreaming can help improve your performance on a previously encountered challenging problem. AKA, you’ll be better at it after you step away for a bit and allow your mind to wander.
  • Meditate. Finding a moment for mindful meditation is another way to help improve your focus throughout the day. Research demonstrates that mindfulness and acceptance training can reduce mind-wandering while performing a task that requires sustained attention.
  • Connect. Social support and connection to loved ones is important to our mental health overall, and research continually proves different ways it positively impacts our lives. Social support has specifically been shown to mitigate burnout. But let’s be honest, we probably didn’t need science to tell us that time with the people and pets we love is good for us!

My Experience

Again, I’ve read all the articles and I trust the science. But I also needed to figure out breaks for myself – what really feels like a break, not just what “should feel like a break”.

  • Movement. Working out does not feel like a break for me. I’m going to do it because I know it’s good for my mental health, especially long term, but you won’t find me going for a run (or even a walk) midday to clear my head. That said, I like to stretch. So some days, I’ll just leave my yoga mat out and ready to be used – lowering the barrier for Future AnnE to prioritizing stretching later in the day. I usually do it while listening to a podcast or music. And I usually feel pretty great afterwards.
  • Eat. Actually taking a break to eat lunch (even if it’s just a bowl of cereal) is one of my favorite ways to take a break. It’s easiest to achieve when I have food available that is simple to prepare (e.g. cereal or leftovers).
  • Mindless chores. Folding laundry (especially with NPR or an episode of Survivor on in the background) is another favorite way to take a break. It fulfills the part of my brain that desperately wants to “feel productive”, but I also get to breathe, think about different things, and look away from a screen.
  • Connection. In early September, I spent two weeks cat sitting the cutest cat in the world and for those two weeks, my favorite break was hanging out with her. Sometimes we’d play, sometimes I’d just pet her, and to be honest, sometimes I just annoyed her. When I was in an office, I’d take a break by going to my friend’s desk to borrow her hand lotion – and proceed to gossip about her date last night. Both of these served as a reminder to me that there is a world outside of my inbox, which helped reset my brain.

As you can see, these don’t perfectly align with The Best Rest, According To Science. But right now, they work for me. And I found them by simply trying different things – you can too.

Accountability: breaks I actually took

For me to get serious about taking breaks, I needed concrete examples. To my surprise, I found them on BeReal. My friends are great about showing what they are really doing, including when they are taking breaks (e.g. naps, walks, TV during the day, etc.). I needed their example to normalize taking breaks because otherwise I felt guilty about taking them. They have inspired and motivated me to prioritize breaks.

In case it’s helpful for you too, here are some of the breaks I took in September:

  • 3pm. Tried to nap, but failed. Instead, rewatched an episode of The Great British Bakeoff.
  • 2:30pm. Put together new furniture while listening to a podcast.
  • 3pm. Folded laundry while watching Survivor.
  • 1pm. Played with the cat until she was annoyed and ran away.
  • 2pm. Therapy sure didn’t feel like an easy break, but it was an opportunity for my brain to do something other than work!
  • 2pm. Ate ramen and watched Survivor.

There were also days that I forgot to take breaks, despite knowing I was going to publish a blog on the importance of breaks at the end of this month. And, turns out, it wasn’t the end of the world. So give yourself grace as we teach ourselves this new way to work. I certainly am!

Keep learning

As you can tell, I’m not going to pretend learning to take breaks is straightforward – it hasn’t been for me. But practicing this skill has definitely helped my productivity and my mindset overall. So, I think you should try it.

However, you shouldn’t just take it from me. I’ve had the best teachers and I highly recommend you check out their work:

Learn more about our Author: AnnE Diemer (she/her/hers) is an HR Consultant who prioritizes the human in HR. With eight years of recruiting, DEI, and HR generalist experience across tech startups and non-profits, AnnE is dedicated to supporting organizations who are ready to take a people-centered approach to HR. At Stripe, AnnE led initiatives focused on improving candidate experience, diversifying application pipelines, building university recruiting programs, and developing leaders within the company’s employee resource groups. In 2020, she brought these skills to political non-profits where she designed programs that improved equity in hiring, promoted self-care and sustainable work, led internship programs, designed performance reviews, and facilitated connections amongst staff as they worked remotely for the first time. In her consulting practice, aedHR, AnnE approaches her work through a lens that holds contradictions: ​​How do we build great workplaces while also questioning capitalist systems? How can we work efficiently and move quickly while also prioritizing ourselves and each other as humans? When she’s not trying to answer these difficult questions, you can find her crocheting or riding her new bike around Washington, DC.

*Disclaimer: This post was not generated by A.I. It is indeed written by a real life human. A pretty cool human in fact.