10 ways to make your next work break as refreshing as (scientifically) possible

Takeaway: Taking breaks is crucial for your productivity. To make your next break as refreshing as scientifically possible, completely step back from your work during that time, and, if you can, invest in a stress relief strategy while on break (they’re listed below).

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 55s.

A couple of days ago I posted about how long your ideal work break should be—which varies depending on how you’re wired, and what time of the day it is.

What can you do during your breaks to make them as refreshing as possible? Here are a couple of suggestions that, like Monday’s tactics, are proven (by science! woo!) to help you spend your time even more wisely.

First, completely step back

Over the course of the day, your mind has two modes that it see-saws between:

  • A “central executive” mode, which you experience when you’re intensely focused on something.
  • A “mind wandering” mode, which you experience when you let your mind rest.

Your brain can’t be in both modes at the same time. So in the modern office, generally speaking, we spend much more time in the central executive mode than we should. With more tasks than time, it’s hard not to.

But at the same time, there are huge productivity (and neurological) benefits to letting your mind rest and wander. When you think back to when you had your last eureka insight, chances are you weren’t focused intently on something. You were probably in mind wandering mode—letting your mind rest while in the shower, gardening, or taking a stroll to the coffee shop without your phone. This mind wandering mode allows us to come up with more creative insights, and gives us the space we need to process our work on a deeper level—our brain has been shown to continue thinking about our work unconsciously, even when we don’t think it is.

Another reason stepping back completely is so important is that our brain has a limited pool of physiological energy—and once we deplete that reserve, our productivity becomes toast. Completely separating from our work and letting our mind rest gives us the space to replenish that energy reserve.

When you step back from your work completely during breaks, you create the conditions for your mind to rest and wander. Whether that means heading down the street (without your phone in hand) to pick up a tea, taking a stroll outside during lunch, or simply walking across the office and back, the productivity benefits are huge.

9 stress relief strategies that actually work

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are specific stress relief strategies that really work. Unlike quicker fixes—such as shopping, drinking, or gambling—these strategies actually reduce the levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in your body.

The APA has gone so far as to name nine of them. Here they are:

  1. Exercising, or playing sports
  2. Meditating
  3. Reading
  4. Listening to music
  5. Going on a nature walk
  6. Spending time with friends
  7. Getting a massage
  8. Investing time in a creative hobby
  9. Praying, or attending a religious service

(If you’re curious, I’ve written more about these specific strategies here.)


The best part about these strategies is how they all appear to let your mind rest. And if you have the flexibility to fit any of the strategies into your breaks (some are much more realistic than others), they will let your mind completely step back from your work.

I realize that I cheated a bit with the headline for this article—but I have no ragrets. Taking more frequent breaks from your work is so crucial, that I don’t mind presenting these tactics behind a linkbaity headline to get your attention. Separating from your work more frequently is counterintuitive productivity advice—especially when breaks can cause you to feel guilty about not working—but if you care about your productivity, it’s worth it.

  • Love it, thanks! I’m thinking about starting meditation, but I don’t know how to start. Any advice?

    • avd122

      Pls do a Art of Living program in your area, the best technique ever :)

    • In case you find it helpful, I wrote a meditation guide a while back! Here it is :-) http://alifeofproductivity.com/meditation-guide/

      • Thank you, I’ve already read that :) I also tried to meditate and set the alarm for 7 minutes – I thought it could be hard but it turned out great. Next time I will try focus for a little longer. Once again a big thank you for all the work here!

        • Thanks so much for reading! Happy it went well.

  • Hey Chris, great post. Curious…which one of these relief strategies is your favorite and why?

    • These days I’d have to go with a nature walk—especially after spending all winter cooped up inside, it feels great to grab some fresh air, exercise, and do an errand or two all at once! :-) Yourself?

      • I couldn’t agree more. Avoiding being cooped up is the reason I moved to Tampa for the winter :)

        Biking while listening to an audiobook is my go-to. But after reading this article, I don’t know if that’s enough of a “mind-wandering” mode. I’ll have to experiment with just listening to music.

  • Leo

    I’m a bit confused. Can you really step back into “mind wandering mode” while meditating? I thought the whole point of meditation was keep focus on one thing.

Pin It on Pinterest

Emails suck. My newsletter doesn't.

After you sign up, I'll send you a few brand new productivity posts every Monday morning.

Join 200,000 monthly readers and never miss a single thing!

You can unsubscribe at any time, and I won't do anything slimy with your email. There are no catches.