What the most productive & happy people do every 60 to 90 minutes at work

There's no shortage of tips that aim to help you power through the workday as the most efficient version of yourself. But contrary to popular belief, being efficient doesn’t mean chaining yourself to your desk and knocking out task after task.

One of the best ways to stay productive—and keep stress at bay—is to take frequent breaks, productivity experts suggest.

"When we come back from a break, we can be more creative, innovative, and focused," says Carson Tate, author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style. "We're not as prone to self-interrupt, such as taking Facebook or email breaks. We're more passionate and connected to work."

That's because our brains are like muscles, and we can only exert them for so long before they need a break, writes Melanie Pinola, managing editor at Zapier, in a Trello blog post. She adds that for optimal productivity, our brains need a break of roughly 15 to 20 minutes for every 60 to 90 minutes of focused work.

"Although many of us can’t increase the working hours in the day, we can measurably increase our energy," suggests Tony Schwartz, founder and CEO of the Energy Project. "Science supplies a useful way to understand the forces at play here. Physicists understand energy as the capacity to do work. Like time, energy is finite; but unlike time, it is renewable."

So how can you renew your energy through the day?

In 5 to 15 minutes:

For a quick break, experts recommend getting up and getting your blood pumping. "Walk up and down one set of stairs, go outside and walk around block, do pushups or jumping jacks," says Tate. "A five-minute break can be more effective than a 30-minute break if you incorporate movement."

But sometimes, simply taking your mind off the task at hand can be just as effective. "It can be just as productive to practice mindfulness, do a guided meditation, or some deep breathing," suggests Maura Thomas, author of Work Without Walls: An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work. "You can do these activities in two minutes or 20. Little breaks like this keep your mind energized, and they can lead to those 'aha!' moments of creative insight."

Learn more: How (and why) some leaders take a week to do nothing but think

In 30 minutes:

Take a brisk walk, recommends Laura Stack, author of The Exhaustion Cure: Up Your Energy from Low to Go in 21 Days. After all, "[s]itting at a desk for hours at a time can decrease your energy level." she says. And if your energy isn't replenished through movement, half an hour is also ample time to take a nap, adds Pinola.

Decluttering your desk may also be a productive use of your break, says Thomas. "Talk to me all you want about messiness and creativity, but in my work I’ve seen over and over that clutter equals stress," she says. "Your clutter sends the message to yourself and others that you're overwhelmed and not in control, and that there may be things buried in the clutter that need your attention."

Similarly, interaction with others helps us destress, says Tate. Call a loved one or chat with a coworker—just avoid talking about work, she advises.

In 60 minutes:

When you have an hour for your break, get out of the office, suggests Thomas. She recommends having lunch or coffee with a friend or coworker. "Strengthening work connections is good for your career, and unwinding with friends and family reduces stress and energizes your brain."

Productivity coach Deb Lee also recommends doing a "brain dump," which involves writing down everything on your mind so that you can better organize your thoughts.

You can also use the time to catch up on your reading. According to a study form the University of Sussex, reading a novel can relieve stress more than listening to music or taking a walk (Vozza, Fast Company, 5/18; Pinola, Trello blog, 4/28/16).

Next in Today's Briefing

Why 26 college presidents toured Zappos—and what they took away

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague