Short Breaks Only Improve Productivity if You Stay Focused on Work, New Research Shows

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True or false: One way to improve your stamina on the job is to take short breaks like going for a walk, grabbing some coffee or planning your evening. If you said true, you'd be wrong according to new research.

In fact, unless you use a quick break to assist a junior associate or learn something new that will help you do your job better, it won’t really refresh you or improve your ability to do your job well, and may even have the opposite effect, according to a new study by a Portland State University assistant professor in industrial and organizational psychology, Charlotte Fritz.

Fritz co-authored research showing that using short “micro” breaks at work to do things like shop, drink tea or coffee, listen to a favorite tune or make plans for later actually reduced one’s vitality countering the popular wisdom that taking short breaks can be useful at work.

In the May 2012 edition of Harvard Business Review, Fritz says "organizations preach the value of outside walks and encourage employees to use break time to disconnect and recharge. My own research on stress relief indicates there [is in fact] value to disconnecting from work.” Just don’t try and do it in the space of a coffee break, she adds.

“Nearly across the board, microbreaks that were not job-related, such as getting a glass of water, calling a relative or going to the bathroom, didn’t seem to have any significant relationship to people’s reported energy [what we called their vitality],” she says.

Do work-related things

Moreover, “Some activities, like listening to music and making weekend plans, seemed to have a negative impact on energy. The only time people showed an increase in vitality was after they took short breaks to do work-related things, such as praise a colleague or write a to-do list.”

This isn’t to say that going outside and taking a brief walk in the park isn’t a healthful thing to do—just that it may not be the most effective way to use a short break in the action. Fritz did identify one exception to the focus-on-work rule, however: taking a short break to meditate increases one’s vitality, she states in her research.

Is there anything wrong with just hanging around your desk and actually drinking coffee when you need to take your gaze away from the computer?

“Coffee breaks were associated with higher fatigue, not lower,” Fritz told the Harvard Business Review.

“That could just be a matter of causality,” she says. “It might be that being tired makes you drink caffeine, not that drinking caffeine makes you tired. We can’t clearly interpret this finding based on the data we have so far. Though I’m not an expert on this, I think some research indicates that caffeine is energizing for a little while, but then you go back to being fatigued and need even more caffeine.”

Fritz points out that pastimes such as being close to nature or journal writing are not useless, but they may be best employed during leisure time, such as evenings and weekends.

As for longer breaks, like vacations, Fritz suggests doing something that gives you a new sense of achievement and go on more frequent, shorter vacations rather than one long one to avoid getting stressed out over all the work that piles up when you return.

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