Give me a break! Taking 10-minute ‘micro-breaks’ from work can boost your energy, keep you focused

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Quick breaks from work can improve your well-being.
Quick breaks from work can improve your well-being.
  • You may struggle to take short breaks from your work because you fear coming across as lazy or unproductive.
  • But new research suggests short breaks can help to replenish your energy and achieve goals and performance.
  • However, the effects were only seen in those who engaged in routine and creative tasks and not cognitively-demanding tasks.

If you often hesitate to take time out from the grind during the day, scientists have news for you. Whether you have a snack, go for a walk, do some stretches or complete a crossword puzzle, taking ‘micro-breaks’ of 10 minutes or less can offer you real value.

“Our results revealed that micro-breaks are efficient in preserving high levels of vigour and alleviating fatigue,” the researchers at the West University of Timisoara in Romania wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

To reach their conclusion, the team combed through 22 studies from the past 30 years, which all looked at the potential benefits of taking micro-breaks from work tasks. Micro-breaks, they found, are a really good strategy to bounce back from your fatigue and boost your energy so that you can complete tasks without feeling exhausted by the end of the workday.

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Many people face “perceived pressure” from colleagues or managers to take breaks as they don’t want to come across as lazy or unproductive, but this report proves how micro-breaks can be beneficial for both the employee and the company, say the researchers.

"It seemed quite unintuitive to have a full week and to wait for the weekend just to feel better, or to have a hard day at the office and to count the hours until evening," study co-author Irina Macsinga told CNN. Macsinga is an associate professor in the psychology department at the WUT.

However, this effect does depend on the kind of tasks you’re doing, they found.

Routine, creative tasks vs cognitively-demanding taks

The team studied how breaks of 10 minutes or less impacted students and employees in several countries, including the US, China, Australia, Netherlands, Brazil and Japan.

Micro-breaks appeared to have a small albeit positive effect on participants - in some of the studies, just over 60% of those taking micro-breaks scored above the mean of the control group for vigour and fatigue.

But these breaks appeared to only positively affect those doing routine or creative tasks.

“When taking a short break when we feel the need to, we can notice that new ideas start to flow easily again, or effortlessly can pay attention to what we do,” Macsinga told the Guardian.

If you engage in routine tasks, for example, micro-breaks can decrease your chances of making mistakes and “refocus [your] attention on the next task,” write the researchers.

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However, for people who work jobs that have a cognitively demanding nature and require a high level of brain power, micro-breaks may only replenish vigour but are unlikely to offer significant improvements in performance. In these instances, longer breaks are needed, they say.

Micro-breaks involving something you enjoy

One expert who was not involved in the study told CNN that your breaks should involve something you enjoy doing. 

In her research, professor Emily Hunter, department chair at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, said she found people who engaged in activities they enjoyed during their breaks were more likely to have a high recovery level after their break.

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It’s also important that we plan our micro-breaks very strategically, Dr Ben Waber, a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab told the Guardian. “If they interrupt your work, it will have an extremely negative effect on performance since it takes at least 15 minutes to get back to high levels of performance for most tasks,” Waber said. 

So the next time you feel guilty about taking an impromptu respite in the workday, know that it’s in your and your company’s best interest.

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