Have you ever taken a break during a big project, and wound up killing your momentum?
You’re busy working on your novel, or other paperwork, and starting to get into the zone, when…your stomach rumbles, or your coworker (or kid) interrupts you, or you simply decide you’ve worked hard enough.
So you get up, get a snack, drink some water, surf some YouTube…and you’re gone.
Your focus is zapped, your motivation has plummeted, and the day ends without you finishing what you planned to finish.
We all know that if you don’t take breaks you will burn out eventually. It’s unhealthy to hunker down for hours at a stretch without getting up to stretch, use the bathroom, rest your eyes.
But breaks have a habit of derailing us from our projects — especially if they are particularly dreadful projects that we don’t want to do in the first place, but have to.
So how do you balance health with productivity? How do you take breaks without getting distracted (as we so easily do nowadays) and leaving important tasks unfinished?
How to take healthy breaks without killing momentum:
1. Refuel before you think you have to
Everyone is a little different in terms of how long it takes to get “into the zone” on any work project. That’s why the Pomodoro Technique (use a timer to set 25 minute intervals of work time with 5 minute breaks) does not work for everyone.
When I am working on a novel, for instance, or some other absorbing story-related project, I may need to go for several hours at a stretch so as not to lose my train of ideas, and that ephemeral feeling that I want to capture.
However, doing this for 8 hours at a stretch (which I have been known to do) is not healthy. I forget to blink, to eat, to drink. This may sound romantic, but it’s a quick road to sickness — mental and physical.
So I am learning to stop BEFORE I feel like I have to. They say, if you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. It’s the same with other basic physiological needs.
Our minds are able to suppress our physical needs to incredible degrees. (Just read any true story of survival. WWII POW survivor Louis Zamperini (aff), for instance, once lasted on the open ocean for 47 days without food or water (he and his companion survived on rainwater and the occasional raw fish or seabird).
But even though we CAN ignore our physical health in order to pursue mental tasks, doesn’t mean we SHOULD.
In Japan, so many workers literally work themselves to death that they even have a word for it: Karoshi, “overwork death.”
Employees succumb to strokes and heart attacks due to excessive stress and a starvation diet. Don’t let that be you.
By the time you’re starving, your bladder is bursting, your eyes are burning and your head is aching, you’re too late. Do this too many times, and you will get sick.
Take breaks, and take them before you feel you need them.
Okay, so that takes care of the “health” part. What about the “not killing your momentum” piece?
2. Take productive breaks, not relaxation breaks
In his book, The Motivation Myth, Jeff Haden advises people to take “productive breaks” when in the middle of hard work.
In other words, breaks are not the time for you to surf Netflix or Youtube or Wikipedia, read a novel, or play a quick game of solitaire.
Instead, choose tasks that make you feel accomplished to reinforce your sense of being productive.
Do a little cleaning, or some jumping jacks, read a (ideally nonfiction) book you’ve been meaning to read (good fiction books have this dastardly way of sucking you in and not letting go until you reach THE END).
Just, whatever you do, don’t let your mind veg out on mindless entertainment, which can derail you for the rest of the day.
3. Take breaks right when things get good
This tip is particularly helpful for writers, but works for anyone:
Take a break just when things are getting good — you’re reaching the climax of your story’s plot, or when you’re almost done with the first part of your task.
That way, when you are taking your break (for health reasons, see #1), you’re really itching to get back to work.
When I was in primary school, class was FUN. I actually loved going to school, and resented weekends and summer break because I couldn’t wait to go back and learn more, because learning meant playing. I looked forward to it, and if I could’ve cut the weekends short, I would have.
(Later, of course, as school got more difficult and less fun, I appreciated weekends a whole lot more)
But the main thing is that when you have something to look forward to, you won’t be tempted to dawdle on your break. If anything, you can’t wait to get back to what you were working on.
4. Predetermine when and how long breaks will be and stick to it
When it comes to unpleasant tasks, knowing that scheduled breaks are coming gives you motivation to work harder and better and faster.
Figure out how long it takes for you to — use the bathroom, drink water, eat a snack, do jumping jacks — whatever healthy activity you plan to do for your break, and then do not let yourself take longer.
Also, determine when you will take your break through gamification. Tell yourself you only have X amount of time before you get Y done, and make it a competition — against yourself.
Games are intrinsically rewarding, because they are challenging, yet come with the possibility of victory. Learn to gamify your work. Make it hard, but not impossible, for you to accomplish vast amounts of work in a scarily short amount of time.
Research showed that, on average, the most productive office workers took 17 minute breaks in between 52 minute work sessions. 52 minutes is just short enough to stave off cognitive boredom, but not so short that that you don’t have enough focus to get real work done.
5. Plan the biggest reward at the end
If you’ve been looking to watching a certain show all week, or you can’t wait to dig into your favorite pie, or you’ve bought a new game and can’t wait to try it out, save it for your final break.
Taking breaks does not make you lazy
If anything, it makes you healthier and more productive — if you do it right.
Humans aren’t perpetual motion machines, though with the proliferation of smart technology, we’ve started to deceive ourselves into being “on” all the time.
We all need breaks — in the middle of work, at the end of the week, and a few times during the year. That’s why we have weekends and vacations on the large scale, and bathroom breaks on the smaller scales.
Just be careful that you really use that breaktime to refuel and rejuvenate, not wear yourself out even more. We’ve all heard of people who stress out over planning vacations, try to cram too many activities into one trip, and then come back needing a “vacation from their vacation.”
That utterly defeats the purpose of a vacation.
You don’t have to do crazy stuff to refill the tank.
Usually, all you need is a brief mental unplug, a little physical exercise, a drink of water and a healthy snack and you are good to go again — on the small and large scale.
So listen to your body and your mind. Take a break. Don’t overthink it.
You’ll be much happier (and healthier!)
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