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Time for a break

When was the last time you took a break from work today? Away from your desk? Away from you mobile?

According to recent research, only 17% of British employees take their full lunchbreak, and 12% never or rarely take a breather of any kind during their working day!

Why? We’re too busy? Have a deadline this afternoon? When work is piling up, it can be easy to convince ourselves to hunker down at our desks, and finish the job at hand. We’re all guilty of it.

But this raises serious concerns for the work force of today. Not only can this common practice have adverse effects on our productivity and ability to generate new ideas, but our brains are not built to work like this. Not to mention the impact on our postures – but let’s save that for another day…


First, let’s consider some science: The field of human chronobiology studies ‘ultradian rhythms’, natural cycles of energy in humans that repeat throughout a 24-hour day. These cycles can help define when we’re naturally more alert and productive, and when we start to tire and feel drowsy. Studies have shown that after 90-120 minutes of sustained, focused time our brain and body needs 15-20 minutes of unfocused time to refuel and replenish.

If we push ourselves to ‘power through’ these periods and ignore our fundamental need for breaks, we risk diminishing performance, and increasing levels of stress and fatigue.

Consider this analogy by author Tony Schwartz regarding Indy 500 car racing;

“The driver who wins that race isn’t the one who drives the fastest, the longest, and most continuously. The winner is the one who drivers at the highest speeds on the track but also makes the most efficient pit stops along the way to refuel, change the tires and make mechanical adjustments and repairs. Maintenance and refueling are as critical to victory as racing itself. That’s because the higher the demand, the greater and more frequent the need for renewal”, Tony Schwartz, author of ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working’.

It’s critical that we recognise our body’s natural rhythms and align our ways of working accordingly. We need to work smarter, not longer.


Breaks are also a great opportunity for mind-wandering. To stop what we’re doing, take a step back and let our thoughts percolate for a quiet moment.

Logical, task-focused thinking often demands convergent reasoning (finding a single answer), whereas mind-wandering primes us to consider divergent ideas (where different ideas collide and new connections are made). This can often lead to light-bulb or ‘aha’ moments. These can happen at odd times and in odd places – for example, a 2014 study showed that 72% of people experience new ideas in the shower!

Light-bulb or ‘aha’ moments may appear sudden or to come out of nowhere, but studies have shown that these are a result of significant unconscious mental activity. Our brains are active, when we are passive.

Mind-wandering isn’t a case of switching-off, but switching-to a different mode of thinking. In neuroscience, they call this moving from ‘attention mode’ to ‘default mode’, which activates when we’re not engaged in specific tasks. Both of which are valued and incredibly important.

“Mind-wandering isn’t a passive state as it may seem from the outside. Instead, it can consist of racing thoughts, deep consideration, and interesting associations”, Jonathan Schooler, psychologist.

Mind-wandering is not a waste of time, just a different mode of thinking that can help us make new breakthroughs.


We all need to find pockets of time that create pauses to rest, refresh and switch modes of thinking.

Here are a few ideas on how to rediscover the power of breaks in your working day;

Structure meetings differently

Try planning a few minutes of unstructured time into every meeting, and make sure you always take a break after 2-hours of focused working.

Find new places

Hold meetings in different places, you could try a local café or the park. New environments can often help stimulate new ideas.

Try to be ‘unplugged’ during breaks

Make an effort to turn off your devices during breaks so you’re not distracted.

Have more team downtime

Suggest a team lunch or walk to get out of the office.

Get some exercise

Exercise is a great way to get the blood flowing to your brain. Take a look at these brain scans after sitting quietly for 20 minutes, compared to walking for 20 minutes where the brain is firing with neuro-electrical activity.


When this image was tweeted by a Huffington Post journalist, a teacher aptly responded “When the bum is numb, the mind is dumb”.

Need I say more…