I struggle with something I think most workers struggle with: taking breaks. I get caught up in the flow, I’m busy on calls, I’m cranking away my latest blog — and I forget to take my lunch. Or worse, I have a lunch break, but at my desk. Not really breaking at all. Just working, but with a sandwich in my mouth.
I fall into the trap of thinking I’m getting more done if I stay at work for that extra half hour. I can’t bear to leave that email unanswered, even if just for thirty minutes.
It’s hard to avoid work when we eat at our desk — the next task is always just one email away. A coworker could come to ask for your opinion on something irrelevant. Your boss could pull you in for a quick, five-minute (actually thirty-minute) checkup meeting. A client could email you a question that only takes a minute to reply to.
Before you know it, you’ve finished your sandwich, your half-hour break, and it’s time to get back to work.
But you never really left.
I got sick of feeling exhausted by 2 pm, mind numb from the relentless grind of emails-calls-questions. Honestly, I lacked the boundaries to have a break with my laptop in easy reach. So I needed to find a new avenue of relaxation. And you know what? I learned that those urgent emails, those demanding meetings with the boss, my needy coworkers?
They all managed just fine without me for half an hour.
Changing my environment stimulated my brain.
The first step was to change my environment.
By changing your environment, you’re essentially telling your brain to gear up for a new set of stimuli and challenges. Leave the office, even to go sit in the meeting room, or ideally go outside.
Our brains love novelty: any new experience wakes it up. A new environment stretches the parts of your brain that might have been dormant all morning.
When your brain encounters something new, it actually releases dopamine — you know, that feel-good drug that makes you happy. Dopamine is more than that, though. Researchers are finding out it’s closely tied to motivation: it charges you to go out and seek a reward.
In this case, it means getting back to the office to storm through your to-do list in record time.
Now, I’m not saying I 1000x’d my productivity or anything like that, but honestly? It was easier to get stuff done and easier to enjoy doing it if I took a real break.
Switching off helped me switch back on again.
Breaks help sustain concentration. Although many people advocate working for long stretches of uninterrupted time — and that may work for them — there’s a lot of research out there that points us to working for short, intense stretches with breaks in between. And I found out that’s where my best work happened.
For example, consider the Pomodoro technique which suggests working for 25 minutes and taking a break for 5.
Regularly scheduled breaks help your brain switch off as well as increasing time awareness. This helps you pick right back up where you left off, ready to go again.
Plus, it’s nice just to switch off with no agenda sometimes. Even if you go for a walk just to not be at work, that’s still worthwhile. A break doesn’t have to make you a better worker in order to still be a worthwhile break.
Exercise my mind and body.
I talked earlier about how a change in environment can help activate your brain. Exercise works similarly. Going on a walk activates parts of your brain which were dormant while you stared at your computer all morning, giving you more stimuli to break out of ruts.
Additionally, moving your body around releases neurotransmitters. These chemicals make you feel good, decrease stress, and regulate your mood. All of these side-effects are amazing for productivity at work.
While this effect is more commonly known as the “Runner’s High”, you don’t need to run to get these benefits (or even break a sweat). Research at the University of Georgia found no difference in mood between low-intensity exercisers and moderate-intensity ones — which means no matter whether it’s a walk or a sprint, you’re getting those good endorphins.
Not only that, but staying in the same place wasn’t super healthy for me, either. I got super antsy, easily distracted, and prone to drinking too much caffeine which made me jittery. A walk woke me up nicely and got my blood pumping.
Personally, I take my full half-hour lunch break every day outside the office. If I’ve brought food I can’t take with me (like soup), I eat while I work and take my break after.
I’ve found my primary result is that I’m less annoyed with my coworkers who continually think it’s OK to interrupt me just for a quick second when I’m clearly eating my sandwich and scrolling through Twitter.
If I’m not in the office, they can’t bother me.
Always a plus in my book.
I’m much more energized and motivated to work when I get back. Many times when I’ve been stumped on a problem, I find I’ve got a new idea to tackle the issue.
I’m more productive in the morning because I know I’ll be out for half an hour at lunch, and need to finish my work. I know I’m going to be out for that half hour, so if I want to finish anything off, I have to tie off loose ends before lunch.
Ultimately? It’s just nice to not stare at a screen for a small part of my day, and it’s good to enforce my work boundaries. I get my half-hour lunch break, and I am not going to feel guilty for actually taking it.
Whether you want to be more productive at work, accomplish more with your time, or spark a new thought, stepping away from your desk is the best thing you can do with your lunch break.