Next time you're plowing through a days-long pile of work, barely looking up from your computer, consider this: Breaks are scientifically-proven to boost focus and productivity.
A 2008 University of Illinois study found that the brain's attentional resources drop after a long period of focusing on a single task, decreasing our focus and hindering performance. But even brief diversions, the study found, could significantly increase one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods of time.
"Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable," Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz wrote in the New York Times. "Taking more time off is counterintuitive for most of us. The idea is also at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies, where downtime is typically viewed as time wasted."
And although Schwartz was advocating for more vacations, the same could apply to breaks taken throughout the day. Though breaks might seem counterproductive, they're more important than ever in the 24/7 workplace of constant connectivity and non-stop streams of email. We're constantly checking and updating our email, Twitter and Facebook in addition to the other work we're doing, and frequently we forgo real breaks in favor of cyber-loafing or Facebook-updating.
There's no way to perform at your highest level without allowing time for rest. Over long periods of working, the brain uses up oxygen and glucose, its primary forms of energy.
The brain uses enormous amounts of energy for an organ of its size, according to Scientific American, "regardless of whether we are tackling integral calculus or clicking through the week's top 10 LOLcats."
So why do we feel particularly taxed after working for a stretch of time? "Maintaining unbroken focus or navigating demanding intellectual territory for several hours really does burn enough energy to leave one feeling drained," writes Scientific American's Ferris Jabr, describing one theory.
So if your productivity is lagging, it might actually mean that you need to take more breaks, or more likely, better breaks that are truly restorative.
Here are six ways to optimize your breaks -- and in doing so, revolutionize your productivity.
Step away from the screen -- and move.
How often do you take breaks that involve mindlessly eating chips while scrolling through Twitter? While it still helps to take your mind off of work briefly, this type of respite is not very effective in rebooting the brain. There are low efficiency and high efficiency ways to recover, and taking a break for social media or texting is generally a low-efficiency diversion.
"[Social media breaks] are better than not 'changing the channel,'" Andrew Deutscher, VP of Business Development at The Energy Project and an expert on office productivity, explained to the Huffington Post. "If somebody was on a 90-minute project meeting and it's really intense and they're focused, and they take a break for 10 minutes to go through their Twitter feed, it's better than trying to push through in that meeting. But it's not really re-energizing... they're not going to be nearly as refreshed and recovered as if they took a real break to walk outside."
The better break? Get up and move around to get the blood flowing and clear the mind (Bonus points if you take a walk outside!).
In addition to providing mild physical exercise, walking has been shown to relieve stress, reduce fatigue and boost mood. Walking through green spaces could even put the brain in a state of meditation, according to a study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Make it a social break.
Research has found that strong social ties in the workplace can boost productivity, and could make employees more passionate about their work and less likely to quit their jobs. For this reason, strategically designed coffee areas and leisure spaces where employees can enjoy breaks together are important to office productivity, Sociometric Solutions CEO Ben Waber told the New York Times.
“In general when we look at what makes people happy and effective at work, it’s being able to spend time with a close group of people,” Waber said to the Times. “You need to structure work in such a way that people have those opportunities.”
Work in a 90-minute burst, then take a break.
Those who work in 90-minutes spurts could be more effective and productive, according to a theory of rest that borrows from observations made during sleep research.
Physiologist and sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman first described the "ultradian rhythm" as a 90-minute cycle during which we progress through all five cycles of sleep. But he also found these cycles to play an important role in waking life, signifying the movement between higher and lower states of alertness in a basic rest-activity cycle.
Working in this way involves using the principles of periodization (work-to-rest ratio) employed by many athletes and their trainers, often to increase endurance.
Take regular vacations.
How much vacation you need will depend on how hard you've been working and how depleted you feel. But all of us need at least some time off in order to work at our highest level. And yet, U.S. workers left an estimated average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012, while more than six in 10 Americans said they worked through their vacation this year.
But the disconnection afforded from a vacation can help us relieve stress, improve mood, and see the bigger picture. The anticipation of an upcoming vacation can boost well-being for up to eight weeks prior to the trip, according to a 2010 study in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life.
Maximize your nap.
Napping has been shown to improve learning and memory, boost mental alertness, and increase creativity and productivity, among other physical and mental health benefits. Take a 25-30 minute nap for a short, effective energy-booster, says sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus.
"The [30-minute] nap is particularly important for people who are tired during the day and didn't sleep enough that night, and want to supplement their sleep a little bit," Breus told The Huffington Post.
If you have a little more freedom in your schedule, taking a longer nap -- one that lasts 60 to 90 minutes -- has even more benefits for your mind and cognition. An hour to hour and a half nap improves memory test results as much as an eight-hour night of sleep, according to UC Riverside research.
Make it a mindful break.
The most effective breaks are those that involve calming the mind through practices like deep breathing, meditation or yoga (mindful movement), which allow for maximum renewal in minimum time. Meditation and deep breathing can be particularly effective in relieving stress.
You may not notice a difference immediately, but research has shown that over time, cultivating mindfulness is correlated with lower cortisol levels. Plus, practicing meditation could boost your creativity and compassion.