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

Tip #4: Take a Microbreak

A break doesn’t have to be elaborate or lengthy. Especially if you’re trying not to break momentum, an under-a-minute microbreak might be just what you need.

The bonus? They can be effective. Researchers from the University of Melbourne asked participants to complete a tedious task that required close attention—specifically, pressing a computer key when any numerical digit except ‘3’ appeared on their computer screen. In the middle of the task, half the participants were shown a picture of a building with a bare concrete roof for just 40 seconds, while the other half were shown a picture of a flowering green roof for 40 seconds.

Those who saw the green roof made significantly fewer mistakes on their subsequent task, providing a shout-out for both microbreaks and for green city roofs. Even under a minute of staring out the window, it turns out, can be good for your productivity.

Many of us focus better in the morning, so extend your peak productivity by taking break around 10 or 11.

Tip #5: Trade the Midafternoon Slump for a Morning Break

Most of us head for Starbucks or catch up on Colbert monologues during the 3:00pm midafternoon slump, but a study out of the Journal of Applied Psychology found that a break in the morning was more productive. Why? Essentially, by 3:00pm, it’s too late. You’re already drained and only good for brainless administrative tasks or cleaning out your email inbox. But in the morning, you can still regain your 9:00am levels of focus after a rejuvenating break. Many of us focus better in the morning, so extend your peak productivity by taking break around 10 or 11.

Tip #6: Don’t Break Flow

As great as breaks are, you don’t need to follow your Pomodoro timer slavishly. If your work seems to be doing itself, your ideas are flowing as fast as your adrenaline, or if you’re so absorbed you’ve lost track of time, rock on. Don’t take a break just because you think you “should.”

The dirty secret about breaks it that it can be hard to get your mojo back, so if you’re happily chugging along, there’s no need to step on the brakes.

Tip #7: But When It’s Time to Rest, Rest Like You Mean It

After your work is over, rest like you mean it. If your work week keeps you tethered to your email, dare to leave it behind on the weekend, or at least until Sunday night. Use evenings and weekends to put away your to-do list, do activities that take you out and away from work completely, and see friends and family.

Here’s another way to think about it: Be inspired by your cat or dog—when they rest, they rest full-on. They don’t check Twitter or think about Monday morning. They find a sunny spot and rest like it’s the only thing on the agenda. Because it is.

To wrap it all up, rather than stressing over what kind of break to take or what interval to follow—the 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off Pomodoro method; the 52 on, 17 off DeskTime method—do what works for your style and circumstances.

In short, go ahead and hum the Kit Kat jingle to yourself as you take a walk around the block, gush about The Great British Bake Off with Alan from accounting, stay productive by making a grocery list, or, of course, listen to Coldplay. No matter what you do, you’ll be glad you did.

Check out the Savvy Psychologist podcast for more tips to a happier, healthier you.

Woman taking a break image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Medical Disclaimer
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 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.