The Right Kind of Breaks Can Make You More Productive

Some people take perverse pleasure in feeling too overworked to take a break. It feels like running full speed ahead, even if your brain is fuzzy. Like someone, somehow, will reward you for working yourself to the bone.

First off, that’s just a bad approach generally, and everyone—but especially lawyers—would do well to treat themselves better. But if your fear is that you just aren’t getting enough done, take solace in this: taking breaks can help you increase your concentration and decrease your fatigue at the end of the day, which increases your productivity.

A few years ago, a study overturned the conventional wisdom that the best way to concentrate is to stay focused on something for long periods of time. Instead, your concentration increases if you give your brain a brief diversion regularly.1 A control group was asked to perform the mind-numbingly repetitive task of looking at digits on a computer screen and determining if they saw certain digits. The group that took two brief breaks in the middle of the 50-minute task were much better at staying focused throughout.

So we know that taking breaks is good for you and your concentration, but if you are achievement-oriented, you are probably wondering how to take the most effective breaks.

Here is one way to make it through to the end of your day without always feeling like someone hit you with a sledgehammer: don’t spend your break surfing the net or on your smartphone. Two recent studies in Korea had office workers catalog what they did during each break and how fatigued they felt at the end of the day. All types of breaks resulted in a bit of recharging, but those who stepped away from technology got more benefit from their breaks.

Chatting with a friend, taking a walk, having a snack, meditating for a few moments—all of these will make you feel more refreshed than if you use your smartphone to check sports scores for 15 minutes. If you feel more refreshed, you’re much more able to return to concentrating on a task.

Additionally, much like the old joke about voting in Chicago, you should take breaks early and take breaks often. Waiting to take one big break later in the day is actually not helping you.

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.

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 [sic] to be longer to have any beneficial effect.

There’s a pervasive myth of the warrior businessman (it is almost always a man)/warrior lawyer who is incredibly successful because they never stop working. That person arises at 4 a.m. so that they can be at the office by 5. They only eat Rye Krisps and drink coffee all day long so they never have to leave their desk. They leave work at 11 p. m. and read the entirely of the Wall Street Journal before they go to sleep at 1 a.m., and that’s how they invented the computer/made a million dollars before age 25/became partner in just 3 years, etc.

Were that person to exist, they’d be an utter mess. That schedule leaves no space for time with your family and no time in which you are ever not working. And, perhaps most importantly, that schedule leaves no time to reset and recharge, both of which are necessary for you to truly run at peak performance. Take some time out of your day today to take a power nap, call your mom, step outside—anything but working 12 hours in a row without a break.

  1. This is the theory behind productivity tools like Pomodoro, which imposes a rigid 25 minutes on/5 minutes off schedule. 

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