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4 Science-Backed Tips for Taking Effective Breaks

09/18/2015 08:15 am ET | Updated Sep 18, 2016

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Some people have a relentless drive to work all the time. They'll work through lunch, stay late at the office, and even bring projects home.

For most of us, though, we can't wait for that next break. It signals a brief time where we can eat, socialize, refresh, and mentally reset.

So we want to make the most of our short breaks from the monotony. But have you ever wondered if you're really making the most of your breaks?

You would think that the productivity researchers and scientists would have figured out how to take effective breaks a long time ago. Surprisingly, there is little research on the topic.

Two researchers decided to apply a bit of scientific method to this question. So let's take a look at what you've been doing right and what you've been doing wrong on that work break.

Survey Says...

Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu are associate professors from Baylor University's School of Business. They felt the best place to begin was with some commonly held beliefs. Emily explains their approach:

"We took some of our layperson hypotheses about what we believed were helpful in a break and tested those empirically in the best way possible."

For the study, Emily and Cindy defined a break as "any period of time, formal or informal, during the workday in which work-relevant tasks are not required or expected, including but not limited to a break for lunch, coffee, personal email or socializing with coworkers, not including bathroom breaks."

They surveyed 95 employees ranging in age from 22-67 over the course of a week. For each break the employees took they were asked to record their activities. When all the surveys were gathered, Emily and Cindy had a total of 959 break surveys to analyze. An average of over 2 breaks for each person every day.

Their analyses resulted in several nuggets of wisdom. And it may come with a surprise or two. Emily had this to say about their results: "This is a strong study design with strong analyses to test those hypotheses. What we found was that a better workday break was not composed of many of the things we believed."

How To Take Effective Breaks

Here are four tips -- straight from Emily and Cindy's press release:

  • The most beneficial time to take a workday break is mid-morning.

Hunter and Wu found that rather than the typical culture of working hard all morning only to take a lunch-hour or mid-afternoon break, a respite earlier in the workday replenishes more resources - energy, concentration and motivation.

  • "Better breaks" incorporate activities that employees prefer.

A common belief exists that doing things that are non-work-related are more beneficial, Hunter explained. Based on the study, there was no evidence to prove that non-work-related activities were more beneficial.

Simply put, preferred break activities are things you choose to do and things you like to do. These could also include work-related tasks.

  • People who take "better breaks" experience better health and increased job satisfaction.

The employee surveys showed that recovery of resources - energy, concentration and motivation - following a "better break" (earlier in the day, doing things they preferred) led workers to experience less somatic symptoms, including headache, eyestrain and lower back pain after the break.

These employees also experienced increased job satisfaction and organizational citizenship behavior as well as a decrease in emotional exhaustion (burnout), the study shows.

  • Longer breaks are good, but it's beneficial to take frequent short breaks.

While the study was unable to pinpoint an exact length of time for a better workday break (15 minutes, 30 minutes, etc.), the research found that more short breaks were associated with higher resources, suggesting that employees should be encouraged to take more frequent short breaks to facilitate recovery.

Breaking Bad

Thanks to Cindy and Emily, we can now maximize our break time. Their study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Will this work for everyone? I would say probably not. Human personalities are too nuanced and quirky to have a "one-size-fits-all." What works for someone else may not work for you. We're all a little bit different.

However, this can be a great guideline to get ideas, tweak your existing routine, or even examine current office policies. Experiment and find out what works for you.

Oh yeah, and one last thing. While traveling that road to success, don't forget to stop and enjoy the scenery. It does the soul good.

This article first appeared on TheBrainFlux. You can join thousands of others getting brain tips by following on Twitter or Facebook.
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