Wednesday 11 March 2015 9:18 pm

How to use breaks at work to regain focus and improve productivity

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Improve productivity by making sure your brain gets just the right amount of downtime.

It may seem that taking a break at work is a luxury you can’t afford, but it can be a powerful tool for enhancing your productivity. Several studies have shown the importance of letting your brain get distracted from purposeful tasks. As science writer Ferris Jabr recently said in Scientific American, “downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation… and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life”.
But how long should your breaks be to ensure maximum productivity? Here are some strategies that could help:


Named after his old tomato-shaped kitchen timer, the Pomodoro Technique is the brainchild of Italian entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo. The basic idea is that you can be more productive by scheduling tasks into 25 minute slots. You simply wind up the timer, work until it goes off, and then you take a five minute pause to grab a drink, stretch, take a short walk or just relax. After a few sessions, you can take a longer break of about half an hour to replenish your mental energies.
Its proponents claim that it is a vital method for improving efficiency: by rigorously dividing up your tasks and fitting them into 25 minute slots, you are more likely to get them all done. But not only is it an inflexible technique, working out in advance what you need to get done during the day is itself time-consuming. Further, you’re unlikely to make many friends in the office if your tomato-shaped timer starts pinging every 25 minutes.


Another method is to make use of your body’s natural rhythms. More than half a century ago, physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that, when we sleep, we progress through different stages every 90 minutes or so – the so-called circadian rhythm. But he also found that, during the day, our bodies experience similar patterns of lower and higher levels of focus, of rest and activity. 
That is why The Energy Project founder Tony Schwartz, in his book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, recommends concentrating on a specific task for no longer than 90 minutes at a time, and then taking a break to regain focus. In short, your productivity levels are likely to plummet if you ignore the need to renew your personal energy.  
Schwartz may be on to something. A study by Florida State University psychologist K Anders Ericsson found that, for professional violinists and athletes, the amount of time they could devote to intensive practice was limited to about an hour before they began to risk burnout. The same could well be true of people in business.


Using data collected by its DeskTime productivity app, the Draugiem Group has come up with yet another method of effective time allocation. The company conducted an experiment, where it tracked the habits of its most productive workers and discovered that the ideal work/rest ratio was, you guessed it, 52 minutes of work followed by a 17 minute break. 
It does seem a bit obsessive, but the most interesting part was Draugiem’s discovery that the most productive people use breaks to regain the ability to work with purpose. In fact, several studies have found that taking a break or even switching to another task can be an effective stimulus for keeping your goals in mind. “Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant,” Alejandro Lleras, a researcher at the University of Illinois, has argued. Indeed, when faced with long tasks, he says, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself to help keep focused.

A diagnosis of your schedule

RescueTime is a web-based service that seeks to figure out how you’ve actually been using your time. It monitors your activity and helps you discover how much time you have spent on particular apps or websites. As it also scores each of your tasks as productive or not, you can use its reports to make better decisions and stop wasting time.