It should come as no surprise that we (as Americans) are a society of overworked, highly stressed individuals. A recent report by the American Institute of Stress stated that 80 percent of people feel stressed in the workplace, and 40 percent are very or extremely stressed. And no wonder! We are putting in more hours and taking fewer breaks than ever. Productivity has increased by an incredible 400 percent since 1950, and the U.S. is often considered one of the most overworked nations in the world.
With many of us now working from home, it is even more difficult to separate our work lives from our personal lives. We answer emails outside regular business hours, our commutes consist of walking from the bedroom to a desk, and we’re often expected to be “on call” at all hours of the day. These blurred lines between business time and personal time can cause us to feel like we never get a break. And that, frankly, is unhealthy.
Overwork can have damaging effects, such as:
- Increased stress and/or dissatisfaction
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty focusing (learn more about improving focus in one of our latest blog posts)
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Social isolation from friends and family
- Physical issues such as headaches, chest pain, or GI problems
How do we avoid the adverse effects of overworking? Take a better break! Even if you are unable to go on a full-blown vacation, taking short, meaningful breaks can make a world of difference in your day-to-day stress levels and happiness.
Here are my top 5 suggestions for taking a better break:
1. Work in cycles
Human beings are not built to work nonstop all day, every day. Our concentration can only hold for so long before the mind begins to wander and work performance slips. To avoid mental fatigue and lack of focus, it’s a good idea to work in cycles. That means spending time in deep concentration (no multitasking!) before taking a break.
How long should you endeavor to work before taking a break? Researchers have, in fact, discovered a magic formula. In a study of 5.5 million daily records of office workers, the top performers typically worked for 52 minutes before taking a 17-minute break. This ratio of work to break time was enough to reset their concentration and re-energize them. Set a timer and give the 52/17 ratio a try!
If you’re constantly logging into your email or checking your voicemail, you’re not taking a true break. Your brain and your eyes need a rest. Common wisdom for resting your eyes is the 20-20-20 rule. Look away from your screen every 20 minutes at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
When it comes to unplugging, it’s also a good idea to step outside occasionally, if that option is available to you. The outdoors can have a soothing effect on your nerves, can energize you, and can even help improve performance.3. exercise
By now, you’re probably well aware of the benefits of regular exercise. Exercise can help boost your mood, lower stress, improve mental cognition, and much more (in addition to the physical benefits!). But you may not know that exercising during the work day can lead to significant performance improvements.
Harvard Business Review reported on a cross-industry study that examined worker performance and mood of employees who occasionally took time during the day to work out. On days when employees hit the gym, they reported “managing their time more effectively, being more productive, and having smoother interactions with their colleagues. Just as important: They went home feeling more satisfied at the end of the day.” Even if you don’t have access to a gym during the day, you can still get up and move your body. Go for a walk, dance at your desk, do some yoga—whatever fits with your work situation and preferences.
4. switch it up
Temporarily changing scenery can do wonders for your focus and energy. If your concentration is flagging, move your work to a coffee shop, library, or even another spot in your home or workplace. Shifting your work to a new locale can help break up the monotony, improve focus, and increase productivity. It’s an easy way to take a break from your same old surroundings and give yourself a fresh perspective.
5. meditate/Practice mindfulness
A great way to give your brain a meaningful break is to take a few minutes every day to engage in a mindfulness practice. You could journal, meditate, write poetry, do breathing exercises—whatever helps you relax and temporarily shift your focus from work. The great thing about mindfulness practices is that they are flexible in terms of timing. Have 5 minutes? Scribble in your ideas journal. Have 15 minutes? Practice a meditation routine. Letting your mind drift elsewhere for a while can help you recharge, relax, and reset your concentration.
Even if you are unable to take a two-week vacation, it is possible to engage in short, meaningful breaks throughout the work day. Step away from your desk, get some exercise, or practice a mindfulness activity. Do what feels right to you and, above all, don’t check your work email during this time! Your mental and emotional health will thank you.