The 3 Breaks You Need to Take Every Day

A woman stretches, talks on phone, and meditates while taking work breaks from home.
A woman stretches, talks on phone, and meditates while taking work breaks from home.
Illustration: Abbey Lossing

While no one can make more time, energy is a different matter. Ever wonder why it takes twice as long to write a report at 2:30 p.m. as it does at 10:30 a.m.? You haven’t gotten dumber — it’s just that your energy levels change during the workday. One study found that people were most likely to report high energy levels at 8 a.m., probably when that first cup of coffee kicked in. Energy levels then drifted steadily downward into the afternoon.

That same study, however, found that a single five-minute session of stair climbing could raise energy levels for over an hour. More energy translates into better work, which makes breaks incredibly productive — if they’re done well.

The key is proactively scheduling them. Your tired brain will take a break either way, but will probably choose something non-refreshing like doomscrolling for an hour before you know what you’re doing. So take charge and schedule in these three crucial breaks.

Borrow from the retail sector

When I worked in a fast-food restaurant many years ago, we got three breaks in an eight-hour shift: two 15-minute “smoke breaks” (actual smoking not required) and a 30-minute meal. This rhythm works for computer work too: A short break in mid-morning, a slightly longer lunchtime, and then a mid-afternoon pick-me-up can effectively punctuate the workday without detracting from actual work.

Ideally, these workday pauses should consist of a portfolio of break types — activities that are proven to increase energy levels, or highly likely to improve mood. One study that measured people’s happiness levels through the day and during different activities found that beyond the obvious winners — eating and “intimate relations” — people were happiest when exercising, socializing, and engaging in spiritual activities.

The 3 breaks are physical, social, and spiritual(ish)

Break 1: Physical

This might include a walk around the block, walking the dog, going for a run, doing a workout video, jumping rope, doing some kettlebell exercises, or hustling up and down the stairs.

Break 2: Social

This could involve grabbing coffee with a colleague (or FaceTiming over a cup of coffee if you’re working virtually), having lunch with your partner and kids if they’re around, or calling a friend or family member you want to catch up with.

Break 3: Spiritual

A spiritual break is a little less intuitive, but in this context I mean anything affecting the human spirit or soul. Plenty of soulful activities can fit just fine into a workday: praying, meditating, reading spiritual texts or devotionals, listening to uplifting music, looking at something beautiful, or doing anything that connects you to something larger than yourself.

Pick breaks from each category that appeal to you and then, before each day, look at your schedule and figure out when you can plan them in.

How to schedule your breaks

Here are a few sample daily break schedules:

Monday

10:30 a.m. Move a text thread with a friend to the phone for a few minutes

1:00: Read an inspirational book while you’re eating your lunch. (We have a few suggestions!)

3:30 p.m.: A short mid-afternoon walk to clear your head.

Tuesday

11 a.m.(ish): Push-ups between morning meetings

Lunch: Lunch with your roommates (who are all working from home)

4 p.m.: Meditate for 10 minutes in the afternoon

Wednesday

10:30 a.m.: Listen (really listen) to Beethoven’s Ninth in the morning

12 p.m.: Go for a run in lieu of a sit-down lunch

2:30 p.m.: Immerse yourself in the nearest natural environment (even if it’s your backyard)

The breaks can be short. Real short. One study tested break lengths of 1, 5, and 9 minutes, and all these break conditions made people feel better. Yes, even a one-minute break made a noticeable improvement. Anyone can find 60 seconds in the day, though you can probably find more. After all, social media consumers average over two hours a day on these sites — not all of them outside work hours.

Those are breaks, sure, but consciously chosen ones work a lot better.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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