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How to Take Meaningful Breaks

Emily Moore
Emily Moore

January 13, 2018

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Man resting at the top of a hill

Taking a break may not sound hard. You’d think it shouldn’t be hard. But it is.

In the busyness of our modern lives with college courses, smartphones, email, social media, news alerts, and notifications in general, it’s hard to get away from the hussle and bussle and just relax.

We get so caught up in keeping up that we forget taking breaks is actually vital for our mental and physical health.

Have you ever found yourself hard at work but getting nothing done? Spending an hour trying to come up with the perfect closing to that paper but getting nowhere? I know it might seem a little counterintuitive, but studies have found that taking a break from what you’re working on can actually increase your focus and productivity.

Not just that; breaks also fuel creativity. Think of your creativity as a glass of water. When you drink it, the glass empties until there’s nothing left. You can only be creative for so long before you need to take a break and refill your creative “glass.” Forcing yourself to work past your capacity can leave you high and dry—without creative energy when you need it most—unless you take time to slow down fill your creative glass back up.

Making Breaks Meaningful

A break, in essence, is stopping what you’re currently working on and doing something different. This simple shift gives your mind a chance to catch its breath, if you will, which in turn helps you finish your task well.

But not all breaks are created equal. When you take time away from the task at hand to recharge, you want to ensure you’re actually doing something to refresh your brain, not something that will drain those last dregs of energy you were so desperately clinging too.

Yes, some breaks can drain you.

You may be tired of hearing it, but opening Netflix is one of these energy-draining monsters. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that activities like watching television actually puts your brain into a passive state, directly opposite to what you need to tackle engaging, creative projects. This means passive activities like this can drain both energy and personal satisfaction, making it harder to focus once it’s time to get back to work.

This is why it’s important to have purpose in your break-taking. Simply zoning out won’t cut it.

Crafting a Meaningful Break

So what makes a break meaningful? That depends on the person. Mine will look different than yours, but there are some common threads to taking a meaningful break.

“Meaningful” means “with purpose,” so choosing the kind of break you’ll take (as opposed to defaulting to whatever distraction is closest) is the key here. A meaningful beak should shift your focus away from what you’re working on right now and to something actively helpful for your brain.

So say you’re working on a paper for English Lit. You’re getting tired and burned out, and you just can’t come up with a good conclusion. It’s time for a break! But letting your mind completely shut off or get distracted by something overstimulating can turn your 10-minute break into a 2-hour binge which zaps the last of your energy.

So you choose to fix yourself a healthy snack and maybe do a little dance around your kitchen to some upbeat music (because that paper is officially making you crazy).

Fixing a snack while dancing keeps your brain engaged, but in a completely different way than your English paper requires. This gives your mind the chance it needs to refresh it’s paper-writing side without getting completely distracted and demotivated. That’s a meaningful break. By the time you sit back down to your computer, you’ll be able to write that killer closer in no time.

But I know it’s tough to figure out the best way to refresh when you’re already knee deep in college assignments. This is why I recommend planning your breaks in advance, so you don’t get tempted to completely give up when things get draining.

I also recommend breaking up your list into two general categories: daily breaks and vacation breaks.

Daily Breaks

A daily break is what you take during your average, everyday work or study. These breaks give you a chance to rest and refresh your brain for a short time before returning to whatever you were originally focusing on.

It’s a good idea to space these out throughout your day, taking breaks at regular intervals. The timing of these intervals is up to you and depends on how you work. When I was doing Unbound, I liked to take a 10-minute break for every 50 minutes of studying. You may find a different ratio works better for you, like 30 minutes on and 5 minutes off.

Whatever study-to-break ratio you choose, the thing to remember is to keep these breaks short, sweet, and radically different from whatever you were just putting your mind to.

Here’s a few ideas to get you started:

  • Walk away from your desk
  • Get out in nature
  • Take a nap
  • Talk to a human
  • Meditate
  • Feed your body healthy food
  • Exercise

Vacation Breaks

I know “vacation” sounds a lot like “take a week off to tan in the bahamas,” but really, anything longer than your 15-minute, mid-day recharging break could count as a vacation break. The point of this break is to give your mind and body a chance to completely unwind, destress, and recharge. Think of it as the difference between chugging a cup of coffee to stay awake, and getting a full, wonderful 8-hour sleep cycle.

Your vacation break may look like taking a day off from work, clearing one Saturday a month for rest (yes, that means NO homework), taking a weekend to get out of town, or taking a full-blown, week-long, lay-in-the-sun vacay.

Taking long breaks like this can be touch, especially with graduation deadlines looming. I feel your pain. But I promise, a break like this will make you more productive in the long run. Listen to your body, and don’t be afraid to take one if you need it.

If taking a long break seems scary, start small and just take a day off. Just be purposeful with that time and see how much better you feel when you return to daily life. (I.e. don’t spend your full weekend binging on Netflix… though an hour or two probably won’t hurt.)

Here are some vacation break ideas:

  • Read a book
  • Reflect
  • Take a hike
  • Sit in nature (if hiking isn’t your thing)
  • Do a puzzle
  • Play a board game with friends
  • Check chore-like items off your to-do list

Now it’s your turn. Reading a blog post about how to take meaningful breaks is great, but if you really want to be productive and successful, you’ve got to act. So pick your top 3 favorite break ideas (or just 1, if that feels like too much) and work them into your next study session, weekend, or upcoming vacation. Remember, meaningful breaks take practice. So if you feel like you didn’t succeed the first time around, that’s ok. Just pick up again and give it another go next time.

Did you like this post? You may also enjoy reading Confessions of a Burnout Junkie (And How to Avoid Becoming One).

Emily Moore
Emily Moore

Emily loves business and marketing. To prove it, she graduated Unbound with a marketing BA, joined the Unbound marketing team, and runs a small business on the side! For fun, she likes to cook, ski, and collect vinyls.

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