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Why you should be taking more breaks at work: increase your productivity by doing less

Image of a baby napping to illustrate one of the best ways to use your break time
"I'm working. Honest!"

Taking more breaks at work is the best way to increase productivity in the workplace.

It's true whatever business you're in – whether you're a freelance copywriter, marketer, artist or in manufacturing:

One of the main factors that increase productivity is the amount of time since your last break.

This means that having lots of little breaks when you work is a very good thing.

Clever people have invented various methods of formalising this idea.

The most popular version is probably the Pomodoro Technique.

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique was developed by an Italian productivity consultant called Francesco Cirillo back in the 1980s.

It's a time management technique where you break down your day into sections of 25 minutes of work followed by five minutes of break.

(Fun side note: the reason it's called the pomodoro or “tomato” technique is that ol' Francesco's kitchen timer was shaped like a tomato.)

These days, most people who use it only think about the 25/5 split. But the original technique actually has a slightly different focus:

  1. Decide on your task and write it down on a piece of paper

  2. Set your "pomodoro" (whatever you conceive it to be) to go

  3. Work on the task until the timer rings

  4. Tick off your task on the piece of paper (even if you're not finished)

  5. Take a five minute break

  6. After you've drawn four ticks, take a longer break

Although there are now dozens of Pomodoro Technique apps, ol' Francesco is probably horrified by them.

The original technique has a zero tech focus:

You write with a pen. You use an egg timer which needs to be wound. The sound of the bell creates a necessary stimulus which breaks up your flow.

Then again, Francesco Cirillo was/ is in software design, so maybe he loves this stuff.

Picture of tomatoes as an allusion to the Pomodoro Technique
I would pay good money for a perpetual motion machine made out of these lil' fellas

There are tons of similar ideas based on this technique:

  • Some people say you should work for 90 minutes, rest for 30 minutes to match your body's circadian rhythms.

  • Others use the so-called 52-17 method (guess the breakdown of work-to-rests involved there).

(Personally, I'm not so scientific about it. If I notice a drop in productivity and focus, I take a break. Simple. I've proven to myself that I get much more done in far less time if I do.)

In any case, all of these actual productivity techniques are based around the idea that more breaks are the best way to improve the productivity of employees.


But where's the logic in doing less to do more?

Why does taking more breaks at work, work?

1) You stay (relatively) decisive

Decision fatigue is a thing. It is, however, not a fun thing.

No matter what you're doing at work, it will almost always involve some kind of decision.

Whether that's which word to type next, where to focus your attention next or which supplier to hire to sign a contract with for the next year.

These decisions wear you down over time. (This worrying study on the factors which influence judicial decisions shows that even judges are affected by it).

Take a break before you make a decision.

2) You bash writer's block

Have you ever heard the old joke/ major truism which states that people have their best ideas while sitting on the toilet?

That's sort of the idea here.

If you're struggling to come with a solution to a problem, taking a break – or, probably more accurately, getting some more stimuli and moving to a different environment – helps.

This is technically called going into “diffuse mode thinking”.

Weird name. Total winner.

3) You don't fall afoul of effed-up focus

Image of a doctor struggling to remember - taking more breaks at work is vital for some professions
"The knee bone's connected to the... something something..."

(Apologies for the implied swearing but alliteration is fun.)

Sometimes, you don't struggle to stay focussed.

Everything is going well. You're coming up with snappy decisions and fast solutions to problems.

The next moment, you feel yourself slipping. You're out of the zone. Concentrating on what to do next just got a whole lot harder.

The problem is, most people aren't wired to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time.

It just wasn't a useful evolutionary adaptation back in the day, so it never really caught on.

It was much better to roll your attention past all the different inputs your senses were feeding you to make sure one of them wasn't a camel about to eat you or something.

Apparently, our brains are doing this all the time even if you strongly believe you are focussed on one thing to the exclusion of all else.

Forcing yourself to stay on-task is the worst thing you can do.

4) You... memory... something something?

Have you ever done that thing where you were sure you hadn't grasped the lesson – then, the next day, you could remember it perfectly?

Some studies have shown that taking breaks helps you build memories. It's part of that diffuse mode thinking again.

Taking more short breaks helps the information sink in.

5) You stay on task

Goal habituation. Well, that sounds... comfy?

That's actually the point:

That feeling where you keep working at a task and accomplishing things but you don't seem to be actually getting anywhere?

That's a rough definition of goal habituation.

You've gotten so used to what you're doing, you're not actually really doing anything towards it any more.

Take a break and you'll be forced to reassess when you start again. Hopefully, you'll then be back on your way to eventual victory.

When is a break not a break?

Of course, what you do with your break matters.

Some breaks do not count as breaks. If you have not left your seat or properly gotten away from your computer by using some kind of magic screen to hide it, I would say you probably did not have a break.

I would also argue that social media breaks – taking five minutes off your regular work to check your Twitter feed – do not count as breaks.

Although, it has to be said, there is some evidence to show that they do work. There is also this great article explaining how social media affects your brain.

Personally, I find I'm often less relaxed after a Facebook-feed scrawl than I was before!

Image of a person using their smart phone - not a good way to increase productivity
"Give me some of that sweet, sweet short-lived dopamine goodness..."

If you have an automatic phone check reflex, I've heard of methods to stop yourself checking Facebook which involve:

  1. Turning your phone to greyscale. This diminishes the eye-candy effect (the greyscale option is well hidden in the accessibility > vision settings on most Android phones).

  2. Wrapping an elastic band around your phone. Not because a mobile phone doesn't work with an elastic band wrapped around it (spoilers: it does) but to interrupt your brain's automatic habit of grabbing it and hitting those familiar keys. The effect sounds psychologically similar to the one apparently caused by the shape of the archway whenever you enter a new room and forget what you went in there for in the first place.

  3. Physically locking your phone away. It's extreme. But, hey, if you've got a real problem with this...

(I haven't quite gone as far as phase two or three yet).

What makes for a good break?

Okay, so we've bemoaned a few bad breaks. What is a good break time activity?

  1. Think about nothing/ daydream/ meditate if you can

  2. Read a book about something other than work

  3. Eat

  4. Have a cup of tea or coffee

  5. Have a chat

  6. Get a cheeky workout in (note: must be cheeky)

  7. Draw something (unless maybe you're an artist and you draw in normal working hours!)

  8. Have a little nap (see baby image at start of article for instructions)

Not taking breaks at work leads to the same situation as leaving your Windows computer running for ages with a dozen programs eating up the processing power.

So, why not give your brain the old “turn off and turn on again” treatment?

Your mental operating system is sure to thank you with a little increased productivity.


Feel free to leave me a comedy story of your workplace focus-loss fails in the comments below.

Or, you know, add to the conversation with your own productivity boost plan.

Contact me if you want to chat about anything related to SEO copywriting services.


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