7 better ways to take breaks at work

Many of us experience occupational burnout at some point (even Melinda Gates), but the stakes are higher for education leaders to stay fresh and positive.

When education leaders experience burnout, their feelings can affect how they work with students or make them more cynical towards new ideas for improving their institution.

One of the best ways to avoid burnout is to take a quick break during the day. Writing for Fast Company, Jory Mackay rounds up scientific advice about the best ways to take breaks at work.

1: Take breaks more frequently  

To keep ourselves sharp and focused, we need to treat our brains like a muscle, Mackay argues. To do this, Mackay recommends alternating between "sprints" of work and short breaks, rather than exerting yourself to the point of exhaustion.

Mackay bases his recommendation on two common time management methods. The Pomodoro method recommends working for 25 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break. After 4 rounds, users take a longer break. The DeskTime method, which is based on a study of the work habits of 5.5 million office workers, suggests working for about 52 minutes and then taking a 17-minute break.

2: Multitask during breaks

Focusing on an idea for too long can actually make it harder to concentrate on it, according to research by Alejandro Lleras, professor of psychology at University of Illinois. The effect is similar to the way we stop noticing a sight or sound if we are exposed to it for an extended period of time, Lleras explains.

To make sure you truly stop thinking about work during your break, Mackay recommends inducing cognitive overload by multitasking on other things. It may seem counterintuitive to work so hard during a break, but the cognitive overload forces you to forget about your project—so you can go back to it later with fresh eyes.

3: Go outside

Spending time in nature can improve your focus—and your sleep, according to research from the University of Washington and an article in Psychology Today. If you can't get outdoors during the workday, Mackay recommends decorating your workspace with a plant or other natural elements.

4: Eat more protein

To have a reliable and long-lasting amount of cognitive energy, your body needs protein, according to research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Mackay suggests snacking on chicken, beef, fish, nuts, nut butter, or a protein supplement during your workday breaks. However, he warns against a heavy snack, as it could cause you to crash shortly thereafter.

5: Care for your eyes

According to research from the Vision Council, today's heavy use of digital devices puts us at greater risk of eye fatigue. Based on the Vision Council's guidelines, Mackay recommends the 20-20-20 rule, which recommends looking at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Other ways to reduce eye strain include: making your monitor the brightest thing in your workspace, reducing glare on your computer screen, and ensuring your monitor is at eye level to you.

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6: Get moving

Exercise can boost your memory and focus, according to research from the University of São Paulo. And if you don't have time for a jog, a study by researchers at Stanford University found that even walking can increase participants' creativity.

Mackay recommends getting up during breaks to get some light exercise. He adds that leaving your phone behind could help you think even more deeply, according to blog post from Ron Friedman, a social psychologist specializing in human motivation.

7: Start daydreaming

Letting your mind wander can have a similar effect to meditation, according to a report by Science magazine. Avoid focusing on anything in particular and allow your mind to drift to give your brain a break, Mackay writes. He adds that daydreaming may even give you a fresh perspective to the problems waiting for you at your desk (Mackay, Zapier/Fast Company, 9/30).


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