A lot of time and energy are poorly utilized by working with partial engagement and then taking half-engaged breaks, like to web surf or check email.
A great way to increase productivity is to focus on a single task when working and fully engage with it. If the task is a little dull, a good way to make it more engaging is to try to do it faster than usual but at the same level of quality.
Then when focus starts to fade, take a break that’s fully disengaged for several minutes, doing nothing other than resting your mind. Don’t check email or social media. Don’t count eating or going to the bathroom or chatting with someone as a break. Just disengage completely.
When I want to take a disengaged break, I put my feet up on my desk, kick back in my chair (which has a headrest), close my eyes, and let my mind go blank. Sometimes I’ll start with 1-3 minutes of deep breaths with the Breathe App on Apple Watch (at the rate of 4 breaths per minute). Afterwards I’ll zone out completely with eyes closed, usually for 5 to 15 minutes. I don’t try to think about anything. I don’t usually listen to music. I just rest my mind. If my mind tries to stay active, I just think “Shhhhhh” now and then.
Sometimes I nod off and fall asleep during this time. Other times I just feel my mind going into low gear and slowing down. Normally I don’t set a timer. I trust my mind to let me know when it’s ready to return to work. The signal to re-engage is usually pretty clear. I feel my mind speeding up again, and at some point my eyes pop open, and I feel a desire to get back into work mode.
Another type of break is to lie down on the couch and take a nap. That’s really good in the early afternoon. I usually set a 20-minute timer but normally don’t need it unless I’m extra tired. Typically I pop awake automatically within 16-18 minutes. Rachelle and I often like to cuddle nap together on the couch if we both want this kind of break at the same time. Naps are terrific for restoring focus.
A third method I use for full rest breaks is to lie down on the couch and listen to some meditative music for 15-30 minutes. I often do this when I desire a longer break, like when I’m doing lots of creative work, and I sense my mind could use more downtime to rejuvenate itself. For this I usually listen to Brain.fm “relax” tracks, and there are 4 different modes to choose from: chill, recharge, destress, and unwind. I’ve tested all four of these, and I get the best results from the unwind tracks. They usually take me down to a deep level of relaxation, and when the track ends I feel nicely refreshed and ready to get back to work.
With a few of these types of breaks during a workday, I can normally be productive all day long. They don’t take a lot of time, and they’re very restorative. Even five minutes of mental disengagement once per day makes a notable difference.
While I’m resting I do my best to focus solely on rest, and I try to avoid doing anything else. If I take semi-breaks only, like a break that’s really a meal or a break that includes some low-engagement online interaction, more fatigue accumulates, and it gets harder to focus later in the day. I especially notice the difference when I’m doing creative work or design work that requires careful decisions and attention to detail.
In the past I often thought it would be productive to switch to low-engagement tasks during breaks from high-engagement work. But it’s normally counter-productive to do that. It’s so much more restorative when I let my brain basically go offline. Of course it doesn’t really switch off, but it often feels like some parts are able to power down for a while.
Have you tested fully disengaged breaks during your workday? If not, I encourage you to do so. Tune out completely, and let your only mental activity during such breaks be relaxation or sleep. Hold the intentions to rest deeply, to allow some parts of your brain to go inactive, and to notice the signal to return to work when you’re feeling refreshed.