Principles for restorative breaks

Principles for restorative breaks



When we think about time, it’s often that there’s not enough of it. What we often miss is that timing when we do things is a huge part of using our time well.

We tend to move through the day in three stages – a peak, a trough, and a recovery. And most of us move through it in that order. Those of us who are strong night owls go in reverse order. You also see a pattern of mood that follows the same sort of trajectory where we have an elevated mood in the morning. It drops in the early afternoon and then rises again late in the day. In the mornings, during the peak, most of us excel at heads-down focus: analytic work that requires sharpness and vigilance. The trough is good for routine administrative work. Later in the day, during the recovery, most of us do better on insight and creative work that requires less inhibition and resolve. A better mood with less inhibition can lead to great ideas.

Using the time of day to your advantage can lead to much better decision-making and fewer errors.

Another way to use timing is with breaks. The common view seems to be that amateurs take breaks; professionals don’t. And it’s the exact opposite. Professionals take breaks, amateurs don’t. Breaks are part of the performance.

Breaks can be as simple as standing up, shaking your arms and legs, flexing your muscles and rotating your core before sitting back down. You can also follow the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes spent on a task, spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 feet (6 meters) away.

Some guiding principles for restorative breaks:

  • Doing something is better than doing nothing. High performers work for fifty-two minutes and then break for seventeen minutes. Other research has shown that breaks scattered throughout strenuous tasks decrease fatigue and increased productivity.
  • Moving your body is better than being stationary. Hourly five-minute walking breaks can boost energy levels, sharpen focus, improve mood throughout the day and reduce feelings of fatigue in the late afternoon.
  • Being social is extremely important. Talking with coworkers about something other than work is effective at reducing stress and improving mood. We are wired to connect and be in a group. Lack of connection can lead to a multitude of mental health problems.
  • Outside is much better than inside. When the sun comes out, try to get a walk in with some fresh air. Listen to a podcast or your university class or take a meeting whilst walking outside.
  • Fully detached is better than semi-detached. Tech-free breaks reduce emotional exhaustion. Turn off your phone for a period of the day.

Some other time-specific activities:

  • Coffee: Avoid coffee immediately after you wake up, rather wait 90-120 minutes after waking for your first cup. It’s also a good idea to have your last hit of caffeine no later than 8 hours before you plan on going to sleep to minimize the effects of the stimulant on your sleep quality. Avoid drinking coffee near to eating as coffee reduces the amount of nutrients you can absorb from your food, so delay coffee for at least 1 hour after eating.
  • Sleep and wake time: It’s important to have a fixed bedtime and waking time. The body has a built-in circadian rhythm that functions best with routine.
  • Hormone levels: Many of our hormones oscillate through the day and night. Cortisol, for example, should be highest in the morning and lowest in the evening. The timing of hormones is important as a break in this cycle affects many of the systems in your body.
  • Timing of meals: intermittent fasting, where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting, may benefit heart health, reduce inflammation, and improve cell repair processes. Note: intermittent fasting is not for everyone. The evidence is based mostly on males, therefore for females we can still time our eating patterns, but it’s important not to have big swings in blood sugar levels. It’s also important to time your biggest meal of the day around your sleep schedule – so avoid a large or starchy meal at night as this can reduce sleep quality.
  • Sunlight: It’s important to expose your eyes to indirect sunlight so your brain knows that it’s daytime and releases the appropriate hormones for the day, the best time is in the morning. On sunny days, don’t feel that you always have to wear your sunglasses when it’s sunny. Sunlight helps a myriad of bodily processes such as setting your sleep-wake cycles. This works in reverse for nighttime. When it gets time to sleep, it is time to reduce light. This signals your brain to increase sleep hormones.