Why Your Coffee Break Can Make You More Productive

October 8, 2018

See why taking breaks at work can actually make you more productive.

The next time your boss yells at you for taking a coffee break when you should be working, just tell them, “Listen, I have to respect my body’s ultradian rhythms if you want me to do my best work.”

And, well, you’d be right.

So, what’s an ultradian rhythm? Well, it's a general term for a pattern in your body that repeats regularly throughout the day. Our body has many ultradian rhythms, including ones for our pulse, blinking, our appetite – and our energy level.

Which is where this article comes into play. Researchers have found that our energy level cycles throughout the day – if we let it.

The latter is why breaks are so important. Because, the research shows that not taking breaks will actually make you less productive throughout the day, as it doesn't let your body's "energy ultradian rhythm" to reset. 

In his course LinkedIn Learning course Time Management Tips Weekly, Time Management Expert Dave Crenshaw explains:

LinkedIn Learning Instructor Dave Crenshaw explains how taking strategic breaks at work can make you more productive.

Why Taking Breaks at Work Can Make You More Productive

Our body has an "energy ultradian rhythm." That means each of us can concentrate for a certain amount of time before our ultradian cycle ends and we need to take a break. Generally, this lasts around 90 minutes or so, but it varies for each person.

If we work longer than our body’s energy ultradian rhythm allows, we’ll start to see diminishing returns. And not only will we do suboptimal work during that time, we’ll also wear out our body and make it harder to recover.

But, if you take a short break when your body’s energy ultradian rhythm runs out, you give it time to restart again. And that means you can work again for another 90 minutes or so, with a good level of focus, and continue that cycle throughout the day.

“By taking a brief break, perhaps 10 to 20 minutes, you give your body room to reset the clock so that you can return and have optimal levels of performance,” Crenshaw said.

Best Practices for Incorporating Breaks into Your Day

Bottom line, if you want to perform at peak levels throughout the day, you need to take periodic breaks. Here’s a few best practices for doing that:

  • Use trial-and-error to find out how often you need to take a break.

The rule of thumb is that most people can work for 90 minutes before their energy wanes and they need to take a break. But, it differs for each person.

The only way to know how often you need to take a break is trial-and-error. Mix up the times for a few weeks and chart your energy level – perhaps take a break after 80 minutes of work and then after 110 minutes of work. Whatever works best, do.

  • Do something you like when you take a break.

When you take a break, really take a break.

So, don’t check work email during that time. Instead, do something completely unrelated to work that’ll give you a chance to unplug.

Maybe that’s playing a game on your phone. Or going for a short walk. Or chatting with a friend. Heck, Crenshaw gave the example of a business leader who liked to shadowbox for 10 minutes for his breaks.

Just pick something you like to do that’ll take your mind off of work. After 10 minutes or so, your body’s energy ultradian rhythm will reset, and you can work again at optimal levels.

  • Encourage others to take a break too.

The reason many people don’t take breaks at work?

They feel guilty, like they should be working – even if it means their productivity will dip in the long run. You can change this by normalizing breaks.

While this is a good practice for all employees, it’s particularly true for managers. If you want your team to be more productive and feel less stress at work, a smart thing to do – as ironic as it sounds – is to have them take breaks. So, let your team know taking breaks isn't just okay, it's encouraged (within reason, of course).

And, of course, demonstrate that behavior yourself.

“Finding a regular cycle for peak performance isn't just a matter of personal happiness and job satisfaction,” Crenshaw said. “It's also a matter of the bottom line, and improving the productivity of everyone who works in your organization.”

Want to see more time management tips like this? Watch Crenshaw’s course, Time Management Tips Weekly.

Lessons within the course cover: