Need to be more productive? Take more breaks.


by Bianca Barratt

Need to be more productive? Take more breaks.

Thanks to things like high speed internet, speedy cars and even speedier food deliveries, modern life is getting more fast-paced by the day. No longer forced to travel by horse and cart or even wait for dial up internet, we’ve become used to the idea that everything is available at the touch of an ‘Order Now’ button. 

Whilst this obviously has loads of great benefits - after all, Deliveroo has added joy to many a person’s life - it’s also sent us into a kind of busy frenzy, particularly at work. There’s a pressure to squeeze every ounce out of our time for fear of being seen as a slacker and the idea of taking breaks is often frowned upon. The culture of working overtime or eating lunch at your desk has become the norm and, even more dangerously, is often viewed as noble - the number of people showing up to work when ill has tripled since 2010 as ‘presenteeism’ becomes more outwardly valued than productivity. 

We’ve all been there - with tight deadlines and a never-ending To Do list, we figure that the only way to get everything done is to ‘power through.’ But the truth is, staring at your computer for hours on end can actually end up working against you. The key to being more productive is exactly the opposite of what most people think - rather than working longer hours, your focus will receive a boost when you take more breaks. 

The facts

Research suggests that the average person is productive for only around three hours a day, because distractions such as emails and social media break our attention span every 15 minutes. Rather than seeing this as a failing, acknowledge it for what it is: that our brains aren’t designed to concentrate for extended periods of time. 

When we force ourselves to keep working without sufficient breaks, our brains become overtired which, in turn, makes us less able to focus, less effective at making decisions and less efficient. Though to the outside eye it may seem like we’re getting a lot done when we’ve been sitting at our desks for the last 10 hours, realistically our brains gave up the ghost after about six. 

Break well

Though it might not be feasible to take lots of long breaks away from your desk, several shorter ones can be just as effective in fact, the general consensus is that bursts of uninterrupted focus followed by frequent short breaks is the most effective technique for working. A 2014 study from the Draugiem Group used DeskTime - a time tracking app - to find out what the habits of its most productive employees were. It found that the perfect ratio of work to break time was 52 minutes of focus followed by 17 minutes of relaxation. 

The Pomodoro Technique has also become particularly popular. This one involves working in complete focus on one task for 25 minutes then taking a five minute break away from screens. Repeat this four times then take a longer break. This might be a more practical solution for employees who have a lot of meetings and don’t have the luxury of working for long periods uninterrupted. 

Aside from the breaks, the key to getting the most out of your working time is to focus on a single task. As much as the idea of multitasking seems highly efficient, research suggests it actually makes us 40% less productive. If you can step away from your email or social media for extended periods, you’re far more likely to see a To Do list that’s mostly ticked off at the end of the working day than if you can't, and this, in the end, is exactly what we’re all aiming for, isn’t it?

Post author

Bianca Barratt

Bianca Barratt is a freelance journalist specialising in lifestyle, culture and business features. She has written for titles including the Evening Standard, Independent, The Sunday Times, Refinery 29, Euronews, Sheerluxe and Forbes.com.