7 Strategies to Maximize a Break Without Losing Focus

Too many of us try to power through the day in the name of productivity. We skip lunch but then burn out by 3:00pm. Or we reward a productive stretch with a “quick break” that morphs into a two-hour social media sinkhole. The Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen helps us maximize our breaks and recharge without losing momentum.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #231

Everybody needs a break. Two great inventions that speak to that need are the weekend and the vacation, both of which have a distinct beginning and end. But a break in the middle of the workday is a more elusive challenge. Deadlines, demanding bosses, guilt, and sheer workload often make us power through. We eat lunch while catching up on email and consider a walk to the bathroom a luxury.

On the other hand, even if we value and prioritize breaks, sometimes they go off the rails, unintentionally shape-shifting into a momentum-killing two-hour rabbit hole of online shopping, one more round of Snake vs Block, or BuzzFeed quizzes (We Can Guess Your Eye Color Based On The Trip You Plan To Michigan, anyone?)

Either way, stopping to stare out the window or wander the halls at work may seem lazy, guilt-inducing, willpower-taxing, or logistically impossible. However, done right, breaks can boost focus, recharge your batteries, and make you more productive, not to mention happier. How to do it right? This week, here are 7 ways to make those few minutes really count.

Taking any break, whether it’s quiet or loud, mindless or mindful, is better than nothing.

Tip #1: Any Break Is Better Than No Break

For anyone who’s so overscheduled that lunch consists of wolfing down a protein bar in a bathroom stall, let’s make clear that taking a break—any break—is better than powering through.

A study in Applied Cognitive Psychology ran a head-to-head comparison of five different kinds of breaks. Everyone was asked to focus on a task that required sustained attention for 45 minutes. In the middle, participants took a 5-minute break to play on their phone, sit in silence, listen to a Coldplay song, watch a Coldplay video (apparently even researchers crush on Chris Martin), or choose between the song and the video. Compared to the group that took no break at all, performance was better in every single one of the break conditions.

This makes sense. After all, how much productivity do you realistically get out of that fifth straight hour of studying for your calculus exam? Taking any break, whether it’s quiet or loud, mindless or mindful, is better than nothing.

Tip #2: Make Your Break Different Than Your Work

Everyone has that coworker whose cologne makes the eyes water. But even though you can smell the Drakkar Noir before he enters the conference room, he has no idea. Why? A trick of the brain called habituation. Just like folks who live next to busy streets stop hearing the traffic, or you tune out notifications because your phone pings all day long, we tend to screen out sustained stimuli.

Researchers from the University of Illinois hypothesize that even when we’re actively attending to stimuli, like a work project or other tasks they dub cognitive goals, we habituate as time goes by, making task-unrelated thoughts (aka distractions) more active.

Therefore, the researchers proposed that “deactivating a cognitive goal”—in other words, taking a break—can keep habituation from occurring. After the break, the goal is reactivated.

Therefore, for your break, do something 180 degrees different than what you were doing. For those of us who stare at a screen all day, that rules out taking a break by staring at your phone. Instead, doing something physical like a few jumping jacks, going for a walk to pick up lunch at the Thai place down the street, or strolling across the building to rehash The Bachelor with Jasmine from HR will benefit you more than playing Love Balls on your phone, though again, Love Balls is better than no break at all.

Tip #3: But Take Breaks That Keep You in a Work Mindset

We’ve talked about productive procrastination on the Savvy Psychologist podcast before, like unloading the dishwasher, getting your Instacart shopping done, or catching up on that nonfiction book you’ve been meaning to read. It feels like you’re getting something done, even if it’s not the big thing with the looming deadline you’re supposed to be working on.

Productive procrastination may be full of pitfalls, but the very same types of tasks—productive but easy like sorting the mail or searching online for plane tickets—can be perfect for taking a break. Productive tasks that don’t require much brainpower but still provide contrast to your work can downshift your gears without taking you out of a work mindset.

In Tip #2 we talked about making your break contrast with your work, but an activity that contrasts with your work ethic virtually guarantees you’ll still be watching Honest Trailers on YouTube 45 minutes later. Therefore, test out breaks that don’t break your productivity momentum—walk across the hall to chat with your coworker about a project, reschedule your dentist appointment, or if you work from home, throw a load of laundry into the machine. 


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.