We’ve talked about Get more done with less time by giving distractions their own time and place and Auditing your day and identify time suck with a program like the free ManicTime but there’s another important element to working efficiently and, more importantly, keeping yourself happy and sane.

Take breaks. Real breaks. On purpose.

Let me explain.

This has happened to every one of us: You sit down to work. Then your time is up and you ended up spending the whole time in a Wikipedia whirlpool or organizing your music collection to create the perfect playlist or watching every music video Weird Al has ever made (Don’t try it! The dude is way too prolific.). You’ve done exactly no work and wasted all the time you set aside for work by farting around, as my dad would say. You accidentally took a break when you had every intention of working.

But here’s the kicker: You feel like crap, right? You’re annoyed at yourself for not working when you were supposed to, frustrated that you wasted all that time and, most of all, irritated that, if were going to Not Work, you didn’t do something you’d have enjoyed more than whatever idiotic thing you just did.

Why do you feel like that? You just had some (however unplanned) downtime. Shouldn’t you feel rested, refreshed? After all, isn’t science always telling us that frequent breaks are good for productivity?

In my experience, unless you have a chronic distraction problem, you only accidentally waste time when you are in desperate need of a break and you keep denying yourself one. You keep forcing yourself to work when you want nothing more than to unwind and your brain hijacks that plan and does something mindless because it wants a rest. But these unplanned breaks aren’t satisfying because you end up doing whatever is handy instead of what you’d most enjoy doing and an unplanned break is less satisfying than a planned one for the very reason that it wasn’t intentional. You feel cheated.

There’s a rule for insomniacs that says, if you’ve been in bed for more than 30 minutes and you haven’t fallen asleep yet, get up and do something else so you don’t associate your bed with not sleeping. I think that applies nicely to work. If you sit down to work and 30 minutes have passed and you’ve yet to make yourself do a single piece of real work, take a break.  You don’t have to get up and leave your computer but very deliberately and actively do something that is Not Work on purpose. Especially, do something you really and truly enjoy. The longer you sit there and Not Work the harder it makes it to actually start working again.

And the beautiful part of taking an intentional break is that, when you choose to do something you genuinely enjoy, you’ll get more out of a short break than you would in hours of mindless accidental break. Taking fifteen minutes to do something I truly enjoy, such as playing a level in a favorite video game, watching an episode of a TV show I enjoy or reading a chapter in a good book, leaves me feeling like I’ve gotten a treat and I’m refreshed and ready to work again while an hour on Facebook makes me feel like I deserve that hour of my life back. Best of all, a planned break tricks your brain into feeling accomplished since Take a Break was something you planned to do, did and can now check off the list.

What is your favorite way to unwind when you take a break?

Photo by ell brown