Just as you need to refuel your car and recharge the batteries in your mobile, it’s important to give yourself the chance to replenish your energy levels throughout the workday. In fact, the more demanding your day, and the less time you feel like you have to take any breaks, the more crucial it is that you make sure you do take regular breaks to prevent yourself from becoming exhausted.
However not just any kind of break will do. Psychologists have recently started studying the most effective ways to relax during a workday – they call them “micro breaks” – and their latest findings point to some simple rules of thumb to sustain and optimise your energy levels through a challenging day. The following are three areas of focus to reach peak restfulness.
1. Fully switch off
It’s extremely tempting, to spend breaks doing things that are convenient, but aren’t truly restful. This might be internet shopping, browsing the latest news, or skimming an industry magazine. However, studies show that brief work breaks are only genuinely rejuvenating when they give you the chance to fully switch off. Only activities such as relaxation and social breaks have any benefit. By contrast, any kind of activity that involves willpower or concentration, even if it’s not in a work context, is only going to add to your fatigue levels.
There’s a popular theory in psychology that says our concentration levels are like fuel in a car – the more you use them in one activity, the less you have left over for other tasks. The theory has recently come under criticism for being overly simplistic, but if nothing else, it provides a useful analogy to make sense of the new research findings on workday breaks: As your energy reserves get gradually depleted through the day, you’re only going to allow these reserves to replenish if you genuinely relax in your break times.
2. Take short breaks early and often
A key insight from recent research is that it makes a difference when you take breaks. Most of us feel more energetic in the morning than in the afternoon, and it can be tempting to wait until we’re flagging later in the day before allowing ourselves a short break. However, findings suggest that we actually respond better to breaks in the morning.
This was one of the main findings at Baylor University across five days, in which 95 employees filled out brief surveys about how they were feeling after each break they took. Breaks taken in the morning were much more beneficial, in terms of the improvements in how the workers said they felt afterwards physically and mentally.
If you deprive yourself of many breaks, when you do finally take one, it’s going to be need to be longer to have any beneficial effect.
A related detail from this study was that if you take frequent breaks, then they don’t need to be as long to be beneficial – a couple of minutes might be enough. On the other hand, if you deprive yourself of many breaks, then when you do take one, it’s going to be need to be longer to have any beneficial effect.
3. Get out of the office
It’s easy to find yourself spending whole days indoors – you might take breaks by the coffee machine or communal areas, but nothing beats getting outside and away from the work environment. One problem with staying in the office, is that even if you take a decent lunch break and chat with colleagues, there’s still that pressure to maintain a good impression and you often end up talking shop.
If you can get outside, even if it’s just a five minute walk, you potentially also get to benefit from a rejuvenating dose of nature. Countless studies have shown how a green environment, even if a local park, gives us a mental recharge.
A mistaken belief
There’s a work belief I often come across that says you have to be constantly busy to succeed. If you’ve got time to go for a short walk, you’re obviously not consumed by drive and ambition, so the mistaken ethos goes. The psychological reality is that your mental reserves are limited and it is only by taking frequent short breaks of a truly restful nature that you will be able to perform at your best.