You sit down to work. Ten pages ahead of you, and you’ve written none of them. You figure you work better when you can just marathon this kind of thing — get it out of the way quickly, because you work better under pressure, right?

And before you know it, you’re browsing the Internet, wasting untold amounts of time and accomplishing nothing. You look at the clock, and three hours have passed, but you’ve only finished two pages. How does this happen? It usually comes down to one simple thing: you aren’t taking breaks. If that sounds unintuitive, that’s fine — because you’re about to learn why it’s the most reliable way to actually get things done.

The Break Itself

What is a break?

In order to take a proper break, you need to understand what that entails. In my personal experience, the most effective type of break removes you from the work entirely by separating you from the workstation for a short period of time.

In this way, switching browser tabs to a site like YouTube doesn’t count as a proper break. Instead, try standing up and going for a brisk walk or stretching – this can be done in the office, at home, or even at a coffee shop with ease.

The science behind this says that physical activity is key to keeping the brain healthy and functional; in other words, physical health balances mental health, and vice versa. Every little bit counts—even just a quick stretch.

Why do breaks help?

Breaks keep you on track for two main reasons – one, because they give the work-saturated brain time to relax, recharge, and refocus; and two, because they keep everything in perspective. If you find yourself spending several work increments on a relatively small portion of a project, it may be a good idea to try something else.

When the end of a break period approaches, the brain registers that as a miniature deadline of sorts, and this can provide an extra burst of concentration that would not otherwise happen in order to wrap up a particular task or thought process.

How often to take breaks

There is no hard-and-fast rule for optimal break frequency. Advocates of the Pomodoro Technique say that 25-minute increments are ideal, while others insist on longer or shorter periods. The idea is to find a balance between working too long and breaking too frequently.

The good news is that you have as much time as you need in order to find your own balance. Experiment with different times, and stick to what works for you by setting timers on your phone to keep yourself accountable. There’s nothing to lose with at least trying it out.

Breaking Past Barriers

At Work

Whether you are an entrepreneur, an office employee, or a student, regular breaks can actually help you meet strict deadlines by increasing your productivity. MIT advocates shorter periods of study to tackle projects, and if a MIT student can benefit from it, you probably can too.

A twenty-page paper, a huge cooperative project at work, or a mountain of paperwork can seem like a lot to tackle at once. But by breaking it down into smaller portions, your brain feels less overwhelmed and you will feel the accomplishment of finishing each task; in this way, 25-minute or so periods of work can make a four-hour task seem much more manageable.

At Home and in Life

Projects aren’t limited to the professional space. Cleaning a large back yard for the first time in two months sounds exhausting, but taking a guaranteed break every period of time means that the behemoth task is less a mountain and more a pile of small hills to conquer.

And in personal growth – a field that is especially crucial for entrepreneurs – writing down thoughts and learning from mistakes in small bits at a time can calm a slurry of fears into a layered mixture to be peeled away one bit at a time to reveal the growth and success underneath.

 

So give yourself a break—it just might save you from a breakdown later.