16 minute read

Eight things to do with your work breaks to boost your productivity

02/02/2022

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We all know the feeling of being sat at work and feeling unproductive. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tasks, or maybe you’re feeling unfocused. Whatever the reason, staying unproductive is not only bad for our jobs but can also affect our wellbeing.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to combat this – by taking a quick, high-quality break (HQB), we can revitalise ourselves and improve both our mental and physical wellbeing. Regular high-quality breaks really help us to get our work done and feel great while doing it, leaving us with more time and energy for the things we love: we call this true productivity.

So what are the best types of breaks to take? It differs from person to person, and some are better suited to the office or to working from home, but luckily there’s a lot of choose from. Read on to find out about the science behind these HQBs so you can try them for yourself!

Before we begin, know that taking a moment for yourself whenever you need is always a good idea. Listen to your energy levels and work strategically with your schedule and tasks to take the breaks that will benefit you the most. 

High intensity interval training (HIIT)

Despite the name, HIIT doesn’t have to be that high intensity at all to be an effective work break. It’s great for all fitness abilities and goals, be that building muscle, burning fat or simply getting your whole body moving – something most of us could seriously do with more of.

HIIT can improve your body’s ability to circulate oxygen and vital nutrients, and comes with many lasting health impacts including lowered blood pressure and sugar. That includes improving blood flow to the brain, helping it perform better and leading to enhanced focus, speed, memory and – you guessed it – productivity.

HIIT is a great choice for busy days; you don’t need to devote much time to experience all the benefits. 

Stretching

Sitting at a desk all day can lead to muscle stiffness and particularly back pain. Stretching affected areas can quickly relieve this pain and tension. 

And stretching isn’t just great for relieving pain and tension, but for preventing musculoskeletal injuries in the first place – just ask our physio Charlie: it’s the one thing she wants everyone to do every day!

When we’re stressed, as many people are at work, our muscles tense up as part of our fight or flight response. You might particularly feel this in your neck, shoulders and upper back. Stretching can help to remind our bodies that everything is ok, and can help our brains to feel calmer.

Stretching isn’t just about relieving muscle tension. Getting your blood flowing delivers oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, helping to combat the dreaded fatigue.

The best thing is that you can stretch any time, anywhere – and you can feel the benefit in as little as five minutes, and even if you don’t have much space. If you’re in the office, a quick stretch in your seat could have you feeling better almost instantly – encourage your colleagues to join in! 

Yoga

Yoga is a mental, physical and spiritual practice originating in ancient India. There are many different forms of yoga, and largely the physical aspects focus on breathing, strength and flexibility. The mental benefits of yoga are endless.

Many yoga postures help relieve back pain (this is especially important if you sit at a desk all day!)

Research has shown that yoga can help reduce stress – in one 2016 study, people who regularly practiced yoga were shown to have lower cortisol levels. With as many as 79% of people experiencing work-related stress, this can only be a good thing.

To make things even better, studies have also shown that yoga can increase energy levels and improve mood.

And according to Harvard, doing yoga strengthens the areas of your brain involved in learning, memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language.

The benefits of yoga don’t end when the workday does. Slower forms of yoga such as hatha and nidra can help you drift off to sleep after a stressful day. 

Meditation

Meditation is really good for you, haven’t you heard?!

A lot of research has focused on the benefits of meditating at work specifically, and it turns out that meditation is the perfect high-quality work break.

There is a lot of research supporting meditation – but we’ll keep it to the need to know.. Meditation can help you to re-centre and re-focus.

The benefits of long-term meditation when it comes to executive function and attention are well documented, but one study looked into the benefits of ‘brief mindfulness meditation’. Their findings suggest that it can improve mood, reduce fatigue, anxiety, and increase mindfulness, and just four days of meditation training can ‘enhance the ability to sustain attention’. 

The office may not feel like the ideal setting for meditation, but one study’s findings suggest that there are still great benefits. Participants who used guided meditations on an app showed ‘a significant improvement’ in well-being, distress, job strain, and perceptions of workplace social support. These benefits were still seen at the 16-week follow up assessment, suggesting lasting benefits.

Meditation can also help with how we feel about work, not just how we feel at work. One cross-sectional study found that ‘meditation practice may positively influence job performance, including job satisfaction, subjective job performance, and work engagement.’

Talking about meditation with colleagues helps. One Cleveland Clinic study found that a meditation programme helped with stress and vitality at work – but it also found that peer support helped people to stick to a meditation routine and to make it their own. It also helped them to realise they weren’t alone: “We heard from people all the time, ‘I didn’t realize how stressed everyone else was.’”

So if you decide to take five, consider taking it with your colleagues! 

Affirmations

Affirmations are one of the least understood categories of breaks in the interlude library, but with a bit of commitment and the right mindset they have the potential to be life-changing. Better still, their benefits are truly baked in science, not woo woo.

Affirmations are positive statements we can say to ourselves to overcome negative thoughts, manifest good ones into existence and achieve goals – whatever they may be. They can be really powerful and a brilliant way to find motivation. Affirmations are typically said internally or aloud when alone, but they’re also very widely underused. 

Our brains are designed to be super efficient, which means they’re highly selective, take regular shortcuts and block a lot out. Repeated affirmations, for example “I am smart”, hack these pathways.

Just like our brains are responsible for unconscious bias, affirmations essentially enable conscious bias. Over time, repeating “I am smart” to yourself will lead to your brain searching for signs that back this up and present the proof back to you. Lo and behold, you’ll soon begin to believe what you’ve been telling yourself!

So, whether it’s finding your calm in stressful situations, meeting that impossible deadline, or committing yourself to the lunchtime HIIT class you’re dreading, affirmations are a fantastic way to take a moment for yourself, get your head straight and will your goals into reality.

Writing

Journalling, free writing, listing gratitudes and writing poetry or letters are just some of the ways that writing can be used as a high-quality break. And the best news is, all you need is a pen and some paper to get going!

Research suggests that writing can help us to be more self-aware, which can be very beneficial at work. As Christina Thatcher writes: ‘It can increase our confidence and encourage us to be more accepting of others. It can lead to higher job satisfaction and push us to become more effective leaders. It can also help us to exercise more self-control and make better decisions aligned with our long-term goals.’

Writing about work stress can have mental and physical benefits. Research from Cambridge University Press had participants write about stressful or negative emotions for 15-20 minute sessions: ‘Those who do so generally have significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who write about neutral topics.’

Writing can help to cultivate emotional intelligence, the importance of which at work is becoming increasingly recognised. If something at work is stressful or annoying, taking a moment to pause, write that emotion and sit with it can help you to re-centre. It can also help you to deal with future situations in a better way.

Writing out gratitudes only takes a few minutes but can be an extremely powerful tool in improving mental wellbeing. The trick is to be very specific, and to be very consistent. And as we all know, how we feel generally has a huge impact on how we feel at work.

Taking a moment to write about any frustrations can help us to properly identify and deal with them, giving us more space to do our jobs well. Psychologist Diane Barth says even just five minutes a few times a week is enough to help clear the mind.

Art

You don’t have to be an artist to enjoy the many benefits of art. 

It’s no secret that painting and drawing can help people feel calmer and more focused – but did you know there’s a whole body of research that backs this up, too? 

The famed psychotherapist Carl Jung would prescribe drawing mandalas (circular spiritual symbols containing intricate geometric patterns) to patients after noticing the calming effect this activity had.

A 2007 study by Bell and Robbins had two groups create a list of their 10 most pressing stressors. One group was then given materials to create art, while the other was given a stack of art photos to categorise. The first group demonstrated  ‘significantly greater reductions in negative mood and anxiety’.

Rather than being just mindless scribbling, doodling can be a thinking tool. The Wall Street Journal wrote: ‘Recent research in neuroscience, psychology and design shows that doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information. A blank page also can serve as an extended playing field for the brain, allowing people to revise and improve on creative thoughts and ideas.’

Don’t feel up to drawing or painting something yourself? Not a problem! Studies have found that just the act of colouring in can be tremendously soothing and can even help with reducing anxiety. No wonder those adult colouring books fly off the shelves!

So whether you have your paints at the ready or just the back of an envelope and a pen, even just a short arty break can have you feeling calmer and more focused during your work day.

Cooking

There are so many great benefits to cooking, shown both anecdotally and scientifically. From improving memory to fostering a sense of accomplishment, cooking is much more than just a means to an end. 

And not to mention, when taking a cooking breaks, you’ll always end up with something delicious! Whether it’s a snack break or a way to unwind after a long day, cooking is a brilliant – and underrated – HQB (just maybe not one for in the office!)

Cooking is great for giving our brains space to solve problems. We’ve all had the experience of having our best ideas while doing supposedly mundane activities. Harvard researcher Shelley H. Carson says that ‘a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.’ Get chopping and let the problems solve themselves!

“Cooking at home, or other places, is good for your mental health because cooking is an act of patience, mindfulness, an outlet for creative expression, a means of communication, and helps to raise one’s self esteem as the cook can feel good about doing something positive for their family, themselves or loved ones,” says Julie Ohana LMSW and founder of Culinary Art Therapy in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Between giving your brain ‘incubation time’ for ideas and playing around with flavours and ingredients, cooking can improve creativity. And, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the creative act of cooking is positive, too. The study found that people who engaged in creative hobbies such as cooking, writing and doodling showed higher positive affect and ‘daily flourishing’.

Of course, an obvious benefit of cooking is the health and nutrition aspect. Cooking can also help us to learn more about what we consume. There is always a place for comfort food, too. One study found that eating food associated with warm feelings ‘not only improves a sense of well-being, they also decrease loneliness.’

Although psychological research into the mental health effects of cooking is still in early days, preliminary findings are looking positive. One systematic review reported that ‘cooking interventions may positively influence psychosocial outcomes‘. 

High-quality breaks are for everyone

Not every type of high-quality break works for every type of person, and that’s ok! What’s important is to find what works for you and to make sure you build taking regular HQBs into your work day. 

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