Well-Being//

How to Take Breaks That Actually Recharge You

Breaks can be procrastination in disguise. Here’s how to break out of that trap.

Courtesy of George Rudy / Shutterstock
Courtesy of George Rudy / Shutterstock

It’s common knowledge that taking breaks during your workday — whether it’s watching cute dog videos, reading the latest Thrive article, or getting outside — can improve your productivity and happiness at work. But it’s also true that breaks can easily spiral into procrastination, which ends up hurting rather than helping your workflow.

Are there ways to formulate a break that both relaxes the mind from stressors and prepares you for deep focus? These three expert-backed tips will ensure your next break actually benefits your productivity — and your mindset:

Distinguish between taking a breather and procrastinating

A key way to distinguish between effective breaks and procrastination is by determining whether there’s an underlying stressor. As we procrastinate, we push the completion of tasks closer and closer to their deadlines, creating what Terrence Seamon, an instructor in the Rutgers Center for HR and Leadership Development, calls “self-made crises” — or stressors that could have been avoided through thoughtful time management. 

“Procrastination becomes a problem when we self-generate mini-emergencies that could have been avoided,” Seamon tells Thrive. To avoid these mini emergencies, Seamon suggests breaking large tasks into chunks, and completing those chunks ahead of the project’s due date. Once you’ve completed one of those tasks is the time to allow yourself a break, not before.

Get up, stand up

“A common mistake during a break is to sit there just staring,” Seamon tells Thrive. “The best thing to do on a break is to get up and move.” You can walk with or without a destination — simply changing your environment can completely shift your mindset. Seamon suggests getting some fresh air, doing quick physical activity (a few quick stretches at your desk), practicing slow deep breathing, and even daydreaming — but don’t just sit there!

Evaluate your mental state

Although it may seem obvious, people often forget to check in with themselves to see whether a break was effective in retrospect. “A break is effective when we return renewed to the work we were doing. The fuzzy mental state we had is replaced by clarity. The leaden physical feeling we had is replaced by new energy,” Seamon tells Thrive.

If your “break” consists of a scroll through social media or a trip to the vending machine, chances are you’ll feel more mental fog than clarity. If your break was spent walking outside, taking mindful breaths, or talking to a loved one, chances are you’ll feel more recharged and ready for deep focus. Learn from self evaluation. 

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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