There are many things killing productivity in offices around the world: multitasking, always-on email, smartphones, colleagues… And it doesn’t end in the workplace. Lack of sleep, exercise, addictions of all kinds and sizes, unhealthy diets. If you think about it, it’s a miracle anyone can get anything done these days!

More and more people are beginning to have at least some awareness of these problems, yet one huge issue remains lurking in the shadows and receives incredibly little attention...

Lack of breaks! People sit at their computers for hours on end, and the only breaks they take are usually forced upon them by basic necessities like food, going to the toilet, or a real human interrupting them.

I see it around me every day, and so do you. In coffee shops, co-working spaces and, of course, regular offices. Almost everyone working on a laptop does this, and it’s perhaps the second worst thing you can do after “multitasking.” Until about a year ago, I wasn’t even aware of this problem myself. It wasn’t until I started testing prototypes of our app Saent, that I noticed how pervasive this behavior is.

There are two main problems with not taking enough breaks:

- Your body: your bones, your blood circulation, your muscles; they were not made for sitting in the same (or very similar) position for extended periods of time and need regular movement.

- Your brain: you can not hold focus for longer than one to two hours (this varies per person). Your brain needs regular breaks to re-energize and (subconsciously) process new information that has come in.

The body of research on this is large, growing, and unequivocal, yet we still don’t take adequate breaks from sitting in front of our screens. Why? First and foremost, because it seems counter-intuitive: how can you be more productive if you work less? Yet this is exactly the point.

Your brain is not a machine that will produce higher output if only you just make it put in more hours. Instead, you will get the best results from your brain if you can create optimal circumstances for it to function in. Breaks are a key component of this.

Secondly, it's all too easy to forget any sense of time when we're glued to our screens. Most of us do not actively track our time anyway, but instead of taking frequent stopping points while working, it's also tempting to "just finish this one thing." No big deal if it's only a few minutes, right? Often, though, we totally underestimate how long it takes to complete something (or the time we spend hanging around on social media). We end up on our devices hours longer than our original intentions.

So what to do about it?


The first step is not to feel guilty about taking a break, and realize it is actually beneficial to your work. Find solace in the knowledge that when you take a break, your "archiving brain" (as Theo Compernolle calls it in BrainChains) gets to work in the background. It stores all your thoughts into long-term memory, and looks for interesting connections with stuff that's already in there. This is why if you work non-stop you don't remember or learn much, nor will you have many creative insights: you're not giving your internal librarian the chance to make sense of it all.

When you take a longer break than a few minutes, say when going to the gym for a few hours or even taking a whole day off (!), realize that likely you will still spend some time "working," even though you might not consider that time as such. You will have ideas when you're reading a book, or remember a few things you can still do to make that project better while on the treadmill. A lot of modern work involves thinking, so some time off that leads to a rested brain and fresh inspiration can, in a way, be considered work (if that gives you peace of mind)!

The second step is to be more aware of the time you spend at your device(s). This doesn't mean you have to keep an eye on the clock at all times (in fact, to get into a state of flow, you might even want to turn off your clock). Instead, start working in timed sessions (also called "timeboxing"). This will make you more aware of when it's time to take breaks. As a rule of thumb, for every 5 minutes worked, you should take a 1 minute break. So out of every hour, you should work fifty minutes and take 10 off. There are plenty of apps to help you with this, including our own solution called Saent (an app for OS X and Windows that can help you build better work habits).

The last piece of the puzzle is what to do during your breaks. No work, obviously. Walking is recommended (good for your mind, but also your blood circulation), and try to leave your smartphone on your desk. Read a book, have a chat with a fellow human being, or simply don’t do anything for a few minutes. It’s not necessarily bad to spend some of your breaks at the computer, but make sure to 1) keep track of time and don't get sucked into a rabbit hole and 2) leave your computer behind for at least half your breaks.


More on breaks?

While the problem of insufficient breaks hasn’t “hit the mainstream” yet, there are plenty of good articles and books on the topic out there.

Here are some of the better ones in case you’re interested:

Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime

Here’s exactly how long your work breaks should be

BrainChains (book)

Now that you know about the power of breaks, you can embrace the saying less is more when it comes to your productivity: work a bit less by taking more breaks. You'll get more done, do higher quality work, and will be healthier both physically and mentally.

Not a bad deal, right?

Written by Tim Metz

BYLINE: Tim Metz is the co-founder of Saent, a fully distributed company with employees on three continents that has created the world's first smart device and app designed to help you do great work and live a more fulfilling life. You can download the beta app now for free. Tim lives and works from Beijing (China) and writes regularly about productivity, work/life-balance, and entrepreneurship. You can follow him on LinkedIn.

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