There's a difference between killing time and Me Time.
About 26 percent of Americans call themselves procrastinators, but regular breaks throughout the day can actually make you more productive. That's right: Forcing yourself to power through that project doesn't necessarily mean it'll get done any faster.
Regular breaks throughout the day, even just in increments of a few short minutes at a time, can improve focus, productivity and creativity, according to a 2011 study.
"When you do the same thing for a long time, performance falls," says Alejandro Lleras, Ph.D., author of that study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "At any point of time you have multiple possible concerns or thoughts you could be having. It's difficult to maintain one particular [focus] for a long period of time. If you break that pattern and force yourself to think of something else very briefly, when you go back to your task you get a refreshed focus."
Lleras says this plays into what we know about the brain's process of habituation. Our minds are constantly dulling any information that feels constant -- like the smell of bread in a bakery -- so that we will be alert to threats -- like the smell of something burning in the bakery. In terms of survival, "it makes sense that there would be a time of expiration for how long we can keep an idea in our mind," he says.
But now that many of us are desk jockeys rather than cave people, we're asked to focus on one thing (namely, work) for extended periods of time. And that means we're vulnerable to slumps in productivity. In fact, after about 40 minutes of focus, our attention begins to wane.
You can avoid many of these dips in productivity simply by renewing your focus to the task at hand by briefly letting your mind escape. In laboratory settings, says Lleras, even just a few seconds make a big difference.
However, "not all breaks are created equal," he says. A few minutes spent doing the wrong thing could instead derail your entire afternoon (don't believe us? Type "cat videos" into YouTube and see how long you're stuck in that void).
So what are the most productive ways to procrastinate -- and what is wasteful? We asked Lleras to help us figure it out.
Instead of browsing YouTube, watch your favorite really funny video.
The best breaks are "easy to engage and disengage from" says Lleras, so giving yourself free-range to browse YouTube might suck you in too deep. However, laughter really is great medicine. A belly laugh certainly relaxes you, and may also increase productivity. Planning to watch that single funny video means you can quickly return to the task at hand.
Instead of perusing your social networks, call a friend.
You'll get the same calming benefits of fostering a connection, and a break from the screen at the same time. Changing your environment helps you to truly leave your work behind, Lleras says. "If my office is the place where I'm working all the time, not being in my office allows me to more cleanly cut myself off from that task momentarily," he says. The cleaner the break, the more likely you are to return to your task reinvigorated.
Lleras notes that you might not want to call someone you know will make you too emotional, though, like a partner if you're in the middle of a fight. "An emotional conversation is going to be difficult to stop thinking about once you start," he says.
Instead of watching TV, take a nap.
If you're looking to really zone out, you might be tempted to settle down in front of the television. But before you know it, a few minutes turn into an hour-long episode, and then one episode becomes two. Get the same mental check-out with a quick nap. As long as you don't snooze for more than 30 minutes, you'll wake up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the job.
Instead of eating at your desk, take a real lunch.
Face it -- you're not very productive when you're typing with one hand and you've got a sandwich in the other. In fact, eating at your desk has been found to drain you of energy and decrease productivity, according to U.S. News. Instead of pretending to power through that project, take a few minutes to recharge midday away from your desk. (It's covered in germs, anyway!)
Instead of having a snack, take a walk.
Eating to avoid finishing a to-do item is different from eating because you're hungry. Getting a little exercise instead can distract you from mindless snacking and help you refocus on getting stuff done. If you have the time and flexibility, plan your full workout for the middle of the day. Studies suggest that exercise during the work day -- even if it means time away from your desk -- increases productivity (and boosts your health, too). If not, even just five minutes can help.
Instead of daydreaming, run an errand.
While it can be relaxing to picture your upcoming tropical vacation, daydreaming doesn't have that finite ending that you're looking for in an ideal break, says Lleras. But if you find yourself distracted by thoughts of the prescription waiting for you at the pharmacy, go pick it up. The change of scenery will help you clear your mind to come back with renewed intensity, he says, and you'll check something else off your to-do list to boot!