- Taking short breaks can improve your performance for certain types of work.
- Long breaks provide more benefits, but breaks of less than a minute also have measurable effects.
- Clerical and creative types of work benefit the most from short breaks.
Are you sitting down for this?
Maybe you shouldn’t be. Not for too long, anyway.
Step away from your screen for just a minute. Refill your coffee or get a glass of water. Look out the window.
Sixty seconds on the clock. Really, go ahead.
Back already? Congratulations — you’ve just taken a micro-break.
According to new research from the West University of Timișoara in Romania, micro-breaks can significantly increase your energy level and decrease fatigue.
If you’re taking a break from mentally repetitive or creative types of work, micro-breaks could even boost performance.
How short should micro-breaks be? And what is it you’re supposed to be doing during that time?
In their analysis, researchers reviewed the results of micro-break studies from the past 30 years.
One of their most fundamental findings was that there’s no shared definition for how long a micro-break should last.
They concluded that the upper limit should be about 10 minutes.
“In general, the closer you are to 10 minutes, the better you will perform. However, you will still benefit from shorter breaks,” Jennifer Bramen, PhD, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline.
A 10-minute break is brief to be sure, but for micro-breaks, that’s the upper limit.
So how low can you go?
Jen Summers, PsyD, a utilization review specialist at Los Angeles-based Lightfully Behavioral Health, told Healthline that “research shows that in just 27 seconds micro-breaks can reduce fatigue, increase performance, and optimize energy expenditure.”
Micro-breaks don’t take a lot of time away from the task at hand — performing your job, for example — but because they’re so short, it can be hard to know what to do.
What can you do in 30 seconds?
Dr. Alex Dimitriu, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California and BrainfoodMD, says the basic strategy is movement.
“Get up, walk around, stretch, do push-ups,” he told Healthline. “Getting vertical and moving around is good to get blood flowing and has always been the healthiest use of even a free minute. We tend to sit too long in our daily lives at work.”
Bramen agreed that doing something physical is worth the effort, even in small amounts.
“A great use of a short micro-break is exercise because it will benefit your mental and physical health. For example, you can do squats or stretch next to your desk,” she said.
“Intentionally standing after sitting at a desk, momentarily stretching, taking a pause to close your eyes, or taking a mindful deep breath, are all examples of micro-breaks,” said Dr. Summers.
“For those with fur animals in the workplace, petting your pup is a great micro-break. A few other ideas: water a plant, change the placement of an object in the room, fill your cup with water, tea, or coffee,” she added.
Of course, that’s not to say that anything goes.
“Social media, reading news, or shopping on Amazon may not be the best use of this free time,” said Dimitriu.
In particular, those activities all involve screen time, which could further strain your eyes, especially if you’re going to be looking at a computer screen after your break is over.
Instead, try using the 20/20/20 technique.
“Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds,” said Summers.
If you spent your whole day taking one long break you wouldn’t get very much done. So what’s the sweet spot?
“The attention span of a person is not very long. A rule of thumb is to take a break every 50 to 90 minutes,” said Bramen.
“Micro-breaks are very brief… and can be taken as often as desired. It is recommended, however, to change position from sit to stand to stretch at least every 30 minutes,” said Summers.
“The 20-8-2 rule is easy to remember. For every 20 minutes of sitting, take 8 minutes of standing and 2 minutes of moving,” Summers added.
Depending on your own work situation, you may be able to take micro-breaks on an as-needed basis. But that won’t be true for everyone.
“In my job, I need to structure my work around breaks or I don’t take them. Unless I set a timer, I keep working,” said Bramen.
“Predictability and certainty of an anticipated break help with task completion, prioritization, and time management,” Summers said.
“Just don’t get distracted,” Dimitriu cautioned. “I think focused work should remain the priority while working. However, building in and enforcing regular structured break times can be beneficial.”
“When we set the intention to pause and take a micro-break, we are setting a foundation for health,” said Summers.