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Want to be More Productive? Take More Breaks

Claims like the headline above are often received with skepticism, especially from bosses that think I’m just looking for another excuse to slack off. But productivity isn’t about finding more time to work. It is about getting more work done in the time you have. And toward that goal, it is becoming increasingly clear that regular breaks are an indispensable part of a productive day. That’s right, take breaks for productivity increases in your daily routine.

A study from 2011, and reported in the Science Daily, found that breaks are essential to maintaining high levels of brain function. According to the study author, “the brain is built to detect and respond to change…and prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.”

Everybody from productivity experts to the New York Times is getting in on the party – so don’t worry that these are just the ramblings of a lazy blog writer! The New York Times pieces quotes from Dr. James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, “Long hours don’t mean good work – highly efficient, productive work is more valuable.”

Balanced Work

That all sounds good, but it is all too easy to let your breaks get out of control. I’ll often stop for a five-minute break and the next thing I know I’ve spent an hour in the internet rabbit-hole. So, how can we take productivity-enhancing breaks without wasting our day away?

One highly effective method is the Pomodoro Method. This technique has been around since the 1990’s and was first pushed by author Francesco Cirillo. The idea behind this method is to alternate periods of work with short breaks – this keeps motivation high as you are always within sight of a break.

In a traditional Pomodoro system, you work uninterrupted for 25 minutes then take a short 5-minute break. Once you’ve completed 4 cycles (a total time of two hours), you get a longer 15-30-minute break. Under the Pomodoro System, your work will look something like this:

  1. Work Cycle 1: 25 minutes
  2. Break 1: 5 minutes
  3. Work Cycle 2: 25 minutes
  4. Break 2: 5 minutes
  5. Work Cycle 3: 25 minutes
  6. Break 3: 5 minutes
  7. Work Cycle 4: 25 minutes
  8. Long Break: 30 minutes

The key to staying on-system is to use an actual timer – and stick to it. It is too easy to let the work periods overlap and the breaks grow without the constraints of a timer. While the times can be flexible based on your situation, you should try to stick to a consistent schedule.

Tools of the Trade

The Pomodoro Method works because of its simplicity. You don’t need fancy gadgets or a specialized planner. At its core, the method just needs a kitchen timer and a place to work, but there are tools to help you get the most out of the method. There are both web and app based Pomodoro timers, here are a few that I recommend:

  • TomatoTimer – This is my favorite web-based timer. It is a no-frills Pomodoro timer that is easy to use and manage.
  • Marinara Timer – This web-timer has few more features than the Tomato Timer, but what you gain in features you give up in simplicity.
  • ClearFocus – This Android timer offers a good balance between features and ease of use. I’m an Android guy, so this is my go-to app when I’m working out of the office.
  • Be Focused Pro – I don’t use many Apple products, so I’m relying on advice from friends here. But I hear that Be Focused Pro is a great, adaptable app for your Pomodoro needs. An honorable mention to Tomates if Be Focused Pro isn’t your style.

Find What Works

I love the Pomodoro method. It keeps me on task and motivated to get more done in each work cycle, but it doesn’t fit every project and every need. It is important to remember that any productivity method is a tool, not a master. We should take what works and discard what doesn’t in an effort to always be optimizing our time and productivity.

At the end of the day, the goal of every method is free us up to get more done, feel better, and have more time for what matters. And the science is clear: taking regular breaks will increase your productivity. So find a method that works for you, refine it for your existing workflow, and watch as get more done every day.

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