A Break from Work: Why You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” – Anne Lamott

Pardon the interruption, but could you step away from your desk for just a minute to talk about something important? That would be … stepping away from your desk. Did you know that a well-timed break from work can do wonders for your physical health, friendships and productivity?

It’s true, and there are many workplace studies to back up these claims. If only we had time to slow down, curl up in the breakroom with a warm beverage and read them! This article is designed to help you convince yourself and your team that there’s more to life than checkmarks on to-do lists. In fact, when you take breaks, you’re happier. Happier people get more done. It’s just a fact. (See the sidebar for ways we can help you entice employees to take those breaks and lunches and to make them count.)

Busy is nothing new

We’re all busy. Everyone says so – our spouses, friends, retired relatives, bosses, co-workers, even notable pop culture figures. And not just because of technology, either. Can’t you imagine your ancestors checking the sun shadows in front of their caves to get in one more round of hunting and gathering before dark? They were busy too.

Taking a break from work feels like a guilty pleasure, a breach of some sort of code. At least, that’s what most workers in the U.S. report, despite the fact that an overwhelming percentage of them (86%) say that taking breaks makes them more productive. The task-oriented, what-have-you-done-lately mentality of many workplaces doesn’t help. Even in settings where associates should expect to take a lunch break, more than one-third (38%) don’t feel encouraged to do so.

Time waits for no one

The anti-chillax vibes start early. No sooner have we awakened from our mandatory preschool naps, than we’re rushed off to elementary school where we’re greeted by timed bells and seating charts. Close your eyes and try to remember. Did you ever nod off in class, only to have the teacher come by with a gentle shoulder shake? When the whole class was in trouble, was recess always the first thing on the chopping block? Of course, we all remember this tyranny. Time waited for no one, and it can still be that way.

A few minutes away from the day’s work, or a well-timed lunch break, were precious then and now. You hear it all the time from your team. We all need our downtime to reflect and recharge. Why else was the break room invented? Or waft-worthy specialty coffees created?

Everyone’s doing it: Take that break from work

Workers in the U.S. are particularly break-averse when compared to their counterparts around the globe. In the article “The Longest Lunch Breaks around the World” by Daryn Wright on Saveur, global lunch break trends are explored. While traditions vary and some are even going by the wayside, countries like Spain, Italy, France and Greece have long-since opted to give workers anywhere from a one to three hour break during their workdays.

The time is used to savor food, soak up the outdoors, read, exercise, or take a snooze. One young professional in Stockholm, Sweden, even started a movement called Lunch Beat, a lunch-hour dance party that started with 14 lunch-dancers and has grown into a worldwide movement. Thousands of people now show up for these events to get their midday break groove on.

One brain, two ways to use it

Scientists have been telling us for years that our brains can only process so much at once. In a Noteworthy blog post, “How we think and learn: our brain’s two modes of thinking,” Dr. Barbara Oakley’s theory really goes into detail on the concept.

She says our brains prefer two modes: one for active learning or “focused” processing; and one for passive or “diffused” processing. Focused processing is what we use when we’re trying to grasp a new concept. Diffused processing is the “relaxed” state we slip into when we’re pondering or working out solutions in the background.

Creating a spreadsheet = focused. Singing in the car = diffused.

Break-from-Work-Active-vs.-Passive-Processing 2

Sorry, multi-taskers, but our brains can only tackle one of these modes at a time. Both are equally important to our cognitive functioning. The keyword here is equally. We’ve got to think the big thoughts, but if we want to let them sink in and work the most magic, we need to let them simmer on the back burner and go take a breather.

All this to say, it’s not only nice to take a break and walk around the office, it’s vitally important to our brains and our well-being. People who don’t take regular breaks can suffer from all kinds of negative effects, such as decreased productivity and creativity, and less healthy habits, such as missed meals and weight gain. The great news on this particular front? The problem comes with some easy fixes. Here are a handful:

Expert Advice:

  • Multiple short breaks from work are ideal
  • The 52/17 Rule – The most productive workers report working for an average of 52 minutes before taking a 17 minute break
  • Right around 3 p.m. is the least productive time of day for workers; therefore, it makes the best time for a work break
  • Try and get up once every hour – to stretch, touch your toes, look at something besides your screen, take a walk, listen to music

Give these a try, and the next time you see someone daydreaming into the copier or heading out the door for a post-lunch walkabout, remember (with apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien): “All who wander are not [necessarily] lost. They just need a break from work.”

get even more tips:

If you’re not quite convinced about the joys of breaks – or gasp! – the importance of giving up that deskbound-lunch, here’s four more tips: The Importance of Breaks

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