1. When You’ve Been Working Non-Stop for Hours
When you have a monster of a project to finish up or a huge list of to-do’s to tackle, your instinct may be to power through. After all, if you stop, even for a moment, you’ll be even more behind, and the stress of it all will just pile up.
But, when we focus on something for too long, our brains become tired. And when our brain faces fatigue , we have difficulty focusing, making decisions, thinking clearly, and avoiding distractions. I’m fairly certain that’s not conducive to getting things done well, or at all.
While your brain isn’t technically a muscle, it needs rest like a muscle does. Think about how we do sets of exercises: 15 biceps curls, then rest, then repeat two more times. Why don’t we give our brains the same luxury?
And here’s some good news: Even small ( really small ) breaks can help. “[A University of Illinois study] found that even a 40-second break to look away from your computer screen can result in a 13% increase in productivity,” says Katie Smith, a health promotion specialist. And “short breaks every 10 minutes can result in a 50% decrease in fatigue. Moreover, mid-morning breaks [can] boost concentration, motivation, and energy.”
That “time off,” no matter what the duration, helps you press the reset button and be better prepared to move forward.
2. When You and Your Colleague Aren’t Seeing Eye-to-Eye
If you told me you never disagreed with a co-worker , I wouldn’t believe you (sorry). All relationships encounter disagreements, even those at work.
Rather than allowing the conversation to twist and turn until you’ve reached a deadlock or exploded with anger, though, it’s better to take a breather. This “time-out,” explains Kim Pratt, a clinical social worker, “basically involves removing yourself from a triggering situation so you have time to cool off and gain clearer perspective. [It’s] a healthy way to manage anger (or another strong emotion) before it gets out of control.”
So, when you realize you and your teammate are butting heads and getting nowhere, press pause on the debate and revisit it later. My go-to line for this type of situation is, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to come to a resolution right this very moment, and I’d like to think about this more. How about we reconvene at [insert time]?”
(If you’re discussing via email, which can make things seem much more contentious, don’t just stop responding. Send a quick note that you’d like to mull it over more, and then, suggest getting on the phone or meeting in person.)
The point is, you need a clear head to decide the next step and to continue the discussion in a beneficial way. The only way to do that is to extract yourself, even briefly, rather than letting things escalate.
3. When You’re Having Trouble Solving a Problem
It never fails. When there’s an issue I need to resolve at the office, I always come up with the answer when I’m not actually doing work. Puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together before are all of a sudden the perfect match.
Perhaps it’s because I’m in a different environment. Or because I’m not forcing myself to think about it—my mind just wanders there. Either way, I’ve come to rely on these “miraculous” breakthroughs, trusting that, if I cease staring helplessly at my computer, the answer will magically appear.
“When you walk away from a problem and think about something else, your memory resets.” explains Art Markman, co-author of Brain Briefs: Answers to the Most (and Least) Pressing Questions About Your Mind , “The ideas that dominated your thinking recede from your thoughts. [And those] that were inhibited before gradually become more accessible. If your thoughts return to the problem after a pause, those other memories now have a chance to influence your thinking.”
In other words, even a short interruption from what you’re doing helps wake up your creativity and generate new ideas. It allows you to replace the stale thoughts you’ve been trying to escape with fresh (and better) ones.
Bottom line: Taking breaks is not a sign of weakness or a waste of time. Sure, if you’re running to the vending machine every 10 minutes to grab a new snack, you may have trouble getting anything done. But when you’re stumped, or frustrated, or hitting a wall, they can be extremely helpful.
So, go on quick walk around the block, chat with a co-worker about her weekend plans, or actually take your lunch away from your desk today. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel when you return.