In many low-wage jobs, breaks are built-in requirements; if you work in retail, fast food, or at a big box store, there are mandatory breaks — and this is because even large companies (that often don't even pay their workers a living wage) know that to do our best work, we all need mental and physical breaks, even if just for a few minutes. The same is true for high-paying and stressful gigs: Airline pilots, surgeons and big-rig drivers are closely monitored to ensure they have plenty of time off from work.
The rest of us? Not so much.
But breaks are really important. And I'm talking about get-up-from-your-desk, walk-around or stare-out-the-window breaks, not Facebooking or answering a personal email. Because, it turns out that breaks are very beneficial to productivity, overall mental happiness, and even brain health.
Because you know who takes the most breaks of all? The highest achievers, from Albert Einstein, to Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet. Cerebral congestion is a real thing (more on the data behind this idea in this great Scientific American article), and it's affecting us all, since our brains need downtime to process, sort and organize the massive amount of information many of us take in every day. Meditation can help, but breaks during the day are important too.
So if you are currently on a "I eat at my desk and go from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on devices, working" kind of person, here's how you can realistically work breaks in — and avoid burnout, which is the inevitable result of too much brain on-time.
When: If you have a regular work schedule, you can schedule breaks at similar times every day (which will, in a few weeks, then become a habit); start with three, which is doable. I find myself getting overwhelmed in the afternoon, so I take one in the morning, and two in the afternoons. Set your phone or computer alarm, and when it goes off, unless there's something truly pressing or an emergency of sorts, get up and move away from your desk or workstation.
If you have a changeable workday, take a moment in the morning to schedule the alarm on your phone for three random times throughout the day (obviously not when you have a meeting or a call). OK, so you might miss one; it's bound to happen — but that leaves two other times, each day, every day, to get up and take five or 10 minutes for yourself.
How: If you can walk outside and take some air, do so. Or find your way to a window. Just stare off into the distance (which will give your eyes a needed break of their own), and observe the light. Think about what you are grateful for. Daydream. Take some deep belly breaths, or just clear your mind for a few minutes. Maybe do some side stretches or walk for a couple of minutes. Two five- to 10-minute breaks that encompass all or some of these tactics can do a world of good, giving your brain some off time to recover and decompress.
Results: In a few days, you should start to notice your stress levels decrease a bit, and also your productivity and creativity increase. When the brain is given time off, it can return to task more efficiently. Research also says that you will make more ethical decisions, and better ones, since your brain will have incubation time, which allows you to be a smarter dot-connector.
And of course, naps are another great way to give your brain a break!