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EVOLVERE

Can Microbreaks Improve Your Productivity?

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

written by Alex Truong of The Front Page Initiative


“Taking breaks is an essential part of working efficiently.” This idea has become ubiquitous in this day and age; everybody knows it, yet many people continue to grind away at their work nonstop for hours on end. Oftentimes, these are the same people who say that taking breaks just does not suit their work style. While this could be the case, it is more likely that they simply are not taking breaks in a way that works for them. If you find that your usual breaks are not boosting your productivity, here is a new way to take breaks that many researchers have begun advocating for.


What are Microbreaks?


“Work first then play” is a classic saying that several of us have heard throughout our childhoods. However, recent studies have recommended that small periods of “play” be interspersed within work time to boost productivity; these little pockets of playtime are referred to as “microbreaks”. The reasons for suggesting these microbreaks are both mental and physical. These short breaks act as a mental reset button, allowing for increased concentration after resting for just a few minutes. In a study conducted by Rees et al. (2017), participants who were given a 5-minute microbreak performed better on their attention-testing task compared to those who went without a break for the entire 45-minute experiment. The physical benefits of a microbreak are quite apparent as well, especially for those who live a relatively sedentary lifestyle. For example, getting up for a few minutes to do some light stretches can prevent injuries that are caused by prolonged periods of sitting. Microbreaks can also help in professions that involve prolonged physical activities — shown in Park et al. (2017), where 57% of the participating surgeons self-reported positive benefits on a surgical day in which they incorporated microbreaks with exercises. Taking enjoyable microbreaks has also been linked to better mental health and a more positive attitude towards work. With a multitude of benefits bundled into such small packages, microbreaks can incorporate mental and physical efficiency into your workflow.



How to Spend Your Microbreak


When it comes to taking microbreaks, how you spend it is completely up to you. As long as your microbreaks are short and enjoyable, they should be effective in rejuvenating your mental focus. It is also important to mix up what you do for each microbreak, as activities can become less satisfying after repetition. Try various techniques and activities to see what works best for you. However, if you are having some trouble deciding, researchers do have a few recommendations; light exercise and other activities in a natural setting are common suggestions as they can have both mental and physical benefits. A study conducted by Lee et al. (2015) showed that participants who took a 40-second microbreak to view a flowering meadow completed their assigned tasks with significantly fewer errors than their control group, who instead viewed a concrete roof. These results do not imply that microbreaks must be done outdoors. If it is inconvenient to do so, or you simply do not enjoy nature all that much, you can still have an effective break in another environment of your choice. But if the idea of spending time outside does not abhor you, it is definitely a good option to consider. It is also advised to stay away from social media during your microbreaks, as they can be too stimulating for your brain, preventing it from getting any real respite from work. The attention-grabbing nature of social media can also cause you to spend more time taking breaks than you intended to. While the length of an effective microbreak is based on personal preference, it is important to hold true to your chosen length of time. A good starting point for determining how long your microbreaks should be is to try out common strategies, such as the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique utilizes a cycle of one 25-minute work period and one 5-minute microbreak, followed by a longer 15 to 20-minute break after four repetitions of this cycle. Others find these work periods too short and opt for an oddly specific 52-minute work period followed by a 17-minute break, a method championed by productivity app DeskTime. Research has yet to find a general consensus for how long a microbreak should be, so once again, experiment to find what works best for you.



Takeaway


By incorporating these microbreaks into your workflow, you will soon find that you have more time to take longer breaks. The increased productivity that comes with taking these microbreaks creates a snowball effect, allowing for longer breaks that help prevent burnout and give you time to pursue other interests and pastimes. These longer breaks are naturally better at getting your mind off of work as they often occur outside of work hours. As such, taking both types of breaks is necessary to keep a good work-life balance. If you find that you have not been doing either recently, why not start by adding a few microbreaks into your work periods? It is important to start small when making changes to your work habits to boost productivity, and microbreaks are one of the best ways to do that. Being small is in the name, after all.




How would YOU spend your microbreaks?


Let us know in the comments below!


 



References


Bennett, A. (2015). Take five? Examining the impact of microbreak duration, activities, and appraisals on human energy and performance [Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Commonwealth University]. VCU Scholars Compass. https://scholarscompass.vcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4949&context=etd


Gifford, J. (n.d.). The rule of 52 and 17: It’s random, but it ups your productivity. TheMuse. https://www.themuse.com/advice/the-rule-of-52-and-17-its-random-but-it-ups-your-productivity


Gorvett, Z. (2019, March 12). The tiny breaks that ease your body and reboot your brain. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190312-the-tiny-breaks-that-ease-your-body-and-reboot-your-brain


Kim, S., Park, Y., & Headrick, L. (2018). Daily micro-breaks and job performance: General work engagement as a cross-level moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(7), 772–786. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000308


Kohll, A. (2018, May 29). New study shows correlation between employee engagement and the long-lost lunch break. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alankohll/2018/05/29/new-study-shows-correlation-between-employee-engagement-and-the-long-lost-lunch-break/?sh=4ab4a1c54efc


Lee., K. E., Williams, K. J. H., Sargent, L. D., Williams, N. S. G., & Johnson, K. A. (2015). 40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42, 182-189. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.04.003


MacKay, J. (2018, October 30). How to focus: The 5 key elements for attention management, focus, and flow. RescueTime: blog. https://rescuetime.wpengine.com/finding-focus/


MacKay, J. (2019, September 3). The surprising power of “microbreaks”: Why small, frequent breaks are the secret to productivity, focus, and well-being. RescueTime: blog. https://blog.rescuetime.com/microbreaks/


Park, A. E., Zahiri, H. R., Hallbeck, M. S., Augenstein, V., Sutton, E., Yu, D., Lowndes, B. R., & Bingener, J. (2017). Intraoperative “micro breaks” with targeted stretching enhance surgeon physical function and mental focus: A multicenter cohort study. Annals of Surgery, 265(2), 340-346. DOI: 10.1097/SLA.0000000000001665


Perl-Pollard, K. (2020, May 11). Working from home through COVID-19? Take micro-breaks and perform better, UCalgary expert says. University of Calgary. https://ucalgary.ca/news/working-home-through-covid-19-take-micro-breaks-and-perform-better-ucalgary-expert-says


Rees, A., Wiggins, M. W., Helton, W. S., Loveday, T., & O’Hare, D. (2017). The impact of reeks on sustained attention in a simulated, semi-automated train control task. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 351-359. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3334


Umbrella. (2019, September 28). Psychological detachment - how to get the most benefit from your down time. https://umbrella.org.nz/psychological-detachment-how-to-get-the-most-benefit-from-your-down-time/


Weir, K. (2019). Give me a break: Psychologists explore the type and frequency of breaks we need to refuel our energy and enhance our well-being. Monitor on Psychology, 50(1), 40. Retrieved July 2021, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/break



 


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