Oh No! Microbreaks Are Productive, Real Breaks Aren’t

What, no coffee break? This feels vaguely like the idea that so-called grazing all day is better than three good meals and nothing else. Clearly, I’m way too old-fashioned. I just discovered that traditional coffee breaks do nothing for productivity.

And I do mean traditional. The idea brought me quickly to this old number, from a musical that debuted in 1961, which was made into a 1967 movie, and is now a hit revival. This is a piece of history. It’s from decades before Starbucks. What happened to coffee at your desk? Before we discuss micro breaks let’s consider what we’re losing: (The YouTube number here is from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Or you can click this link to see it on YouTube.)

YouTube video

The microbreak idea is from Boost Your Productivity with Microbreaks, and HBR Ideacast from earlier this month. Portland State professor Charlotte Fritz studied the problem of productivity and breaks. It turns out that what works for me — the quick walk, the change of pace, a non-business phone call — doesn’t actually work that well.

Microbreaks are a term that me and some colleagues came up with to describe all the little things that we do during somewhat unofficial breaks during the workday. … going to the water cooler, chatting with a colleague, checking in on your family … we were looking at these microbreaks, thinking about them in terms of recovery at work. So, the little things that keep us energized throughout the workday that aren’t bigger breaks.

And what they discovered was not what you’d expect (or at least not what I expected):

….the work-related tasks, and specifically tasks that were associated either with learning something new, realizing the meaningful pieces about your work, or connecting positively with others at work, those were the ones that seemed to be related to feeling energized at work.

Not that anybody actually takes old-fashioned coffee breaks. Do you? Don’t we all grab the coffee (or tea, or Pepsi (yech)) quickly and sip it in the morning while we deal with email, blog posts, Twitter, and the business morning routine? So I think Starbucks is safe.

And the study doesn’t say productivity depends on working all day every day without stopping. There is this comforting note:

this was the first study that ever looked at it that way, so we need to be a little bit cautious with our interpretation. But with regard to those microbreaks, yes, going for a walk and so on, going outside for fresh air, that wasn’t related to energy at work. However, I would say, maybe it’s because we were just specifically looking at shorter breaks, microbreaks. However, during a lunch break, I would still encourage people to go for a walk, go outside, and get some sun in.

And this one too:

we do know by now that vacations are good for us. So, definitely again for well-being and health, helps reduce burnout and so on. We do find that they’re good for us. But we also find that the effects fade out relatively quickly. So, within two or three weeks after we come back from vacation, all the positive effects have pretty much faded out. What that suggests is that, rather than taking one long break per year, it would be good to take vacations, maybe a week, like five to six days long or something, or even maybe just long weekends several times per year to recharge.

Amen to that.


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