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How often and when should you take a break?

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Who needs a break from work? I do. We all do, probably more than we know. But when should we take those breaks, and for how long, to keep our performance rolling during the day?

When you search online you’ll find a wealth of expert-sounding opinions, with references to a few core ideas that are repeated so often that you almost think they are true.

Should we follow the research on ultradian rhythms (see below) and time our work for 90 – 120 minutes followed by a 20-minute break? Or should we heed the research that says the sweet spot for productivity is 52 minutes of work, followed by a 17-minute break?  Or should we stick to bursts of 25 minutes, using the popular Pomodoro Technique?

Let’s explore these ideas, after tipping our hat to science, (so politically endangered these days), to see what the research actually says.

Ninety minutes on/twenty minutes off

Personal energy guru and leadership consultant Tony Schwartz promotes the idea of improving performance by working with our daily ultradian rhythms of activity and rest. (Ultradian means a recurring cycle of time that repeats over a 24 hour period.) Nathan Kleitman, a physiologist and sleep researcher, did groundbreaking research uncovering the “Basic rest-activity cycle” (BRAC) of 90-120 minutes that occurs when we sleep and, it appears, when we’re awake. Could working in 90-minute cycles during the day help improve performance? Apparently Kleitman thought so, as Schwartz does today. But the research isn’t so clear.

Attempts to scientifically test Kleitman’s idea that working for 90-minutes and then resting improves productivity haven’t panned out. The US Army even commissioned a study in the 1990’s to look at the connection between the rhythms and performance, but the findings weren’t strong.

That doesn’t mean the idea of syncing your work with your ultradian rhythms isn’t intriguing, and the benefits of taking more planful breaks in today’s constantly driven work cultures make sense. Recent research conducted by faculty of the Wharton School of Business found that compliance with safety regulations increases when people take real breaks between shifts, a finding that’s relevant for today’s over-taxed physicians who might otherwise forget to wash their hands.

So taking creative, renewing, or as-needed breaks, without purporting that the magic 90-minute number for enhancing performance has been scientifically proven, seems to make good sense.

Fifty-two minutes on and seventeen minutes off

A couple of years ago a huge media buzz started when DeskTime, a firm that produces employee productivity tracking software, produced research done by the firm showing that the “most productive people work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 minutes.” DeskTime, with access to millions of records that monitored employees’ productivity while at the computer, isolated the “top 10% most productive employees” and analyzed their behavior. The 52/17 rule emerged and swept the Internet like a new gospel.

A bit skeptical, I had to challenge the source of this oft-cited research: a firm in the biz of selling productivity tracking software. They define “productive employees” as “those who had the highest ratio of using ‘productive’ [software] applications for their line of work (e.g., a marketer would indicate social platforms like Facebook as ‘productive’.)”

Did you understand that slog of words? Productivity becomes a function of what DeskTime can measure–”productive” software tied to an employee’s field–not a reflection of creative activity. (Will I be more productive using Microsoft Word to do multiple 52-minute segments or just brain-dead?)

Science aside, I kind of like the idea of working in fifty-two minute time blocks. It fits my rhythm although I doubt I’ll be diminished if I work fifty-three.

Pomodoro and the twenty-five-minute window.

Years ago, the Pomodoro technique was created by an Italian software designer and time management aficionado Anthony Cirillo and popularized all over the world. The system uses a little tomato-shaped kitchen timer (hence the name Pomodoro – Italian for tomato), to measure work that is done in timed twenty-five minute stretches, followed by a short break. The twenty-five minutes can be a motivation to get going on a project, or a way of tracking your work. Many swear by the method. Cirillo did not base his concept on research; it came out of some interesting assumptions he made. Nothing to dispute here – if twenty-five minutes is a good frame for a spurt of work for you, great!

But if the tomato timer goes off and you want to stay put for another ten minutes, nobody dies.

Here’s my synopsis, based on what I’ve distilled about when to take a break:

  • Our bodies do follow rhythms during the day and it is useful to pay attention to them.
  • We tend to barrel through our day ignoring our body’s need to rest.
  • Resting, taking breaks, and enjoying time-off are undervalued in many workplaces.
  • Paying attention to cycles of energy is useful–but prescribing an ideal amount of time to work isn’t.  (Suggesting-good; prescribing-not.)
  • If we don’t periodically shift gears by taking breaks, our ability to focus is likely to decline.
  • When we break, our decision about how long to take, and what to do should reflect the self-knowing we all need to develop out of listening to our bodies, paying attention to our energy, and noticing our focus.

My Suggestion: Know YOUR rhythm.

Different folks will be productive in different ways.

With a tip of the hat to Aesop and his fables, my husband and I have a tortoise and hare contest going on between our different rhythms of work. I am more hare-like, jumping into a project and working in a burst of activity before signing off. I can be very productive, but push me to keep working beyond a certain point and I fall apart. (Either 25 or 52 minutes could work for me.)

My husband, on the other hand, may delay jumping into a project a bit too much for my taste, but when he commits to a piece of work, his concentration and perseverance astound me. He can easily work for at least a two-hour block of work, interrupted only by an occasional bathroom break.

(I’m not sure which one of us would have won the race…)

Fit your breaks to your needs

When to take a break? When you need one. Your body and your mind will tell you.

How long a break? Rather than assigning a prescribed number of minutes to an optimal break (e.g. seventeen minutes), focus on the quality of that break and how it renews your creative spirit.

Sometimes five minutes of stretching may be all you need. Or occasionally, after a lengthy stretch of pressured work, knock off for a day (or if you have to show up at work, do stuff that’s really easy on the mind).

After a stint of mentally taxing work, I’ll probably need to move my body. But, if my work is physical, sitting at a desk is the break I need to physically recover (I’ve been weeding a lot recently–it makes desk work look enjoyable!)

When my work is highly creative, I like breaks that feel brainless and ask nothing of me. I’m experimenting with staring into space or doing yoga nidra (sleep meditation) when I’ve hit a moment of creative exhaustion.

Bottom line: Breaks aren’t just about improved performance, alluring as that might be. Breaks are also about reviving our spirits and remembering the creative, whole people we are.



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