Taking breaks while working helps us recover. Breaks are necessary for keeping us productive longer. But surely, too many breaks or breaks that are too long will eventually eat into our productive time. What is the right balance between working and taking breaks if you want to maximize your productivity? And is there such a thing as an unproductive break, one that wears you out more than it restores you?
Why Do Breaks Work?
Plenty of research justifies taking breaks at all. The going theory, called Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources Theory (Hobfoll, 1989), says that we all have resources within us, and as we do work and encounter stress, we use those resources. At some point, we need to replenish lost resources, or at the very least, prevent further resources from being lost. Breaks, alongside weekends and perhaps even sleep, do just that.
It’s also been shown that interruptions can cause workers be more productive, and some have theorized that self-interruptions, such as taking a short mental break from work to text a friend to scroll through Twitter, share some of the same restorative effects as other kinds of breaks. In particular, Laura Dabbish and Jing Jin have proposed some interesting theories about self-interruptions, especially those that happen on computers. Jin’s early works, dating back to her undergraduate thesis (2008), attempts to identify, classify, and describe the different types of interruptions we create for ourselves, seeing as some of them may be positive, while others could have a neutral or negative effect.
So we have proof that breaks are good for productivity. But we’re missing some pretty important information.
To make the most of our time, to continue being productive in an efficient way where we’re still doing good work despite the length of time we’ve been doing it, we need details about breaks, including:
- What kinds of breaks are most effective?
- At what intervals do we need breaks?
- Do we need to mix longer breaks with shorter ones?
- Does our productivity cycle naturally adjust to whatever break schedule is available, such as 15 minutes in the morning and an hour for lunch?
Breaks for Knowledge Workers
One of the most obvious types of breaks that knowledge workers take are what Coker (2011) and some others describe as workplace Internet leisure browsing or WILB. I prefer to call it personal online activity or personal Web browsing. Some examples are reading news, scrolling through a social media feed, checking sports scores, and so forth.
Coker carried out a small survey (268 office workers) to find out:
- what kind of online surfing people did at work to take breaks,
- how long they spent on those breaks,
- how frequently they took breaks,
- and whether there was any correlation between duration and frequency with productivity.
Anticipating that too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing, Coker hypothesized that he’d find an inverted-U shaped productivity curve. In other words, a little bit of personal online activity would result in heightened productivity, but there would be a dropoff in productivity after a certain point.
He was right. When people spent more than about 12 percent of their workday taking Internet breaks, their productivity decreased.
In his paper, Coker also cites three older studies, all pre-2000, indicating that shorter and more frequent breaks benefit worker productivity. One of the studies is about manual labor, however, and I have a hard time believing that the needs are the same for physical tasks versus those that are almost entirely mental. The other two studies are intriguing because they do look at computer-mediated tasks, but again, they were published before 2000, and the landscape of computing has changed dramatically since then. What we can surf online, how we access content (e.g., personal mobile devices), and the availability of online interaction with real human beings now is magnitudes greater.
Letting knowledge workers take Internet breaks at work has other benefits, too. It shows trust between the employer and employee and gives the employee a sense of autonomy. It gives employees freedom to find information. It helps workers stretch their minds in different directions. More importantly, people enjoy personal Web surfing, and having an enjoyable break is more restorative than one that’s less enjoyable (Nittono, 2012). Internet breaks allow workers to get personal errands done, too (have you ever done your FreshDirect shopping at work?), which ultimately frees up their brains to focus more acutely on the hard tasks that they’ll get back to doing just as soon as they finish futzing around online.
In the early to mid 2000s, many employers feared (and sadly, some of them still do) that employees don’t have adequate self-control to stop browsing the Internet and get back to work in a timely fashion. Maybe, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way for most people.
An interesting study that looked at how employees worked at different times of day and on different days of the week found that Facebook and personal Web use increased in the afternoon… but so did the use of productivity apps (Mark, 2014). It’s possible that people cope with their waning ability to focus in the afternoon by interrupting themselves to take short, frequent breaks.
‘Work About Work’ is Much Worse for Productivity than Personal Web Browsing
It’s hard to say whether that fear is grounded in any reality anyway. One study I’ve summarized before shows that Facebook is not a huge distractor from productivity, but email is.
Similarly, many knowledge workers know that one of the biggest wastes of their time during the workday is meetings. And in meetings, it’s usually impossible to take a break when you need one.
Email and meetings are sometimes called “work about work.” They seem necessary to getting the real work done, but often they are not. Personal Internet browsing at work eats far less than time than these other unproductive wastes of time. From the body of research I’ve read, people tend to be pretty moderate about their use of personal Internet leisure time at work, but they are absolutely horrendous at moderating “work about work.” Often, workers don’t have a choice about whether they are supposed to attend a meeting. It’s out of their control.
Only the most perceptive decision-makers are aware of this conundrum, and they are the ones leading the charge on the fight against office email. Decision-makers who are still trying to crack down on Facebook are completely misdirected.
A Hard Task is a Process
Back to breaks, I’m still in search of research that will provide even more detail on what kind of breaks benefit productivity of knowledge workers and the pattern for how to space those breaks. Some of the experiments don’t replicate knowledge worker work. Instead, they use tedious tasks, such as staring at a computer screen and identifying when a line that flashes on screen is shorter than all the previous lines shown.
There’s also the matter of certain kinds of hard work that require a state of flow. Coker anticipates this problem too, writing:
“We suspect that WILB could have a negative impact on task performance if it intrudes on an individual’s concentration or flow state when working on a task requiring a high amount of cognitive resources (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Thus, timed wrongly, an episode of WILB in between a cognitively challenging task may be counterproductive if it requires the person to get ‘back into the groove’ of concentration when finished.”
What Can You Do?
Breaks are only as good as we make them. The going research right now says to take short frequent breaks throughout the day and try to keep the total time you spend on them in the range of about 10 to 12 percent of your work time.
And if you reach a state of flow with a hard task, keep at it.
Coker, B. L. S. (2011). Freedom to surf: the positive effects of workplace Internet leisure browsing. New Technology, Work and Employment, 26: 238–247. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-005X.2011.00272.x
Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44: 513–524.
Mark, G., Iqbal, S., Czerwinski, M., & Johns, P. (2014). Bored Mondays and focused afternoons. Proceedings of the 32Nd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’14. doi:10.1145/2556288.2557204
Nittono, H., Fukushima, M, Yano, A., & Moriya, H. (2012). The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus. PLoS ONE 7(9): e46362. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362
Image by Rachel Andrew, CC.