How to Take Real Breaks While Working From Home

Because eating your lunch while sending emails isn’t ideal for your well-being or your productivity.

Daria Kulkova/ Shutterstock
Daria Kulkova/ Shutterstock

When we’re stuck on back-to-back Zoom calls and trying to check everything off our to-do lists, it can be tempting to power through our work without even looking up. And yet, research tells us that stepping away from our desks even for a short time can actually increase our productivity and efficiency. Even if it’s simply calling a family member, taking a walk around the block, or carving out two minutes for a stretch break, it’s important to take time for a real pause.

“Without boundaries and breaks, we not only put ourselves on the path to burnout, we also miss out on the broader perspective that comes from stepping away and engaging with other interests,” says Risa Mish, J.D., a professor of management at Cornell University. “Sometimes, it is just that sort of refresh and new thinking that provides the problem-solving breakthrough you’ve been trying to achieve all along.”

If you’re having trouble carving out time for a real break while working from home, here are five simple tips that can help:

1. Block time on your calendar

It’s important to prioritize your breaks just as you’d prioritize an important meeting. And to hold yourself accountable, Mish recommends scheduling designated blocks of time on your calendar to step away and recharge. “Don’t just schedule back-to-back-to-back Zoom calls,” she suggests. “Create buffer periods of time that you are committing to the cause of your own continued sanity.”

2. Set a timer on your phone

Using the timer function on your phone can help you split up your work time and downtime into designated windows. It can be helpful to set a timer for a certain task you’re working on, or for the amount of time you want to spend away from your work. Mish says that either way, the idea is to break down your day into blocks of time, which helps you make the space to step away. 

3. Do something that commands your full attention

We often think of our breaks as a time to eat lunch over our keyboards or take a call while walking around the block, but Mish says that real breaks don’t involve multitasking at all. Instead, they should be spent doing something completely unrelated to work, like trying a brief meditation, prepping ingredients for dinner, or checking in with a friend. “The idea is to engage with something that commands your full attention,” she explains. “That way, it really is a break from work”

4. Team up with someone else

Our goals are often more attainable when we have an accountability buddy to check in with, and when it comes to separating from work, that accountability is just as important. Mish recommends syncing up your lunch breaks with your partner, or asking a roommate or neighbor to take a walk. “This is one of the underappreciated luxuries of working remotely,” she says. “We have the chance to spend daylight hours with the people who are important to us in a way that was more difficult when we were each working apart.”

5. Set a hard stop to your workday

As vital as it is to take little pauses during the day, the separation you create at the end of your workday until the next morning is most important –– but oftentimes, can be the most difficult. Mish says enforcing a hard stop to your workday where you agree not to answer emails after hours is crucial to allow ourselves to unwind for the night. And remember, working overtime isn’t a badge of honor. “Don’t be that person who violates the norms just to seem like ‘the most dedicated,’” she says. “Model the boundaries you want others to respect.”

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