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  1. Blog
  2. Mental Health

Want to Increase Your Productivity at Work? Take a Break

Rest aesthetic activated

Person in a hammock next to a dog
Photo courtesy of Drew Coffman

Hear me out.

When you push yourself too hard or sacrifice your personal time for the sake of your career, you set yourself up for burnout—and this will, inevitably, lead you to failure. As someone who pushes that 40-hour work week (and occasionally works weekends), I’ve learned that rest is integral to success. What works for me might not work for you, but everyone needs a break. 

The key to staying productive and maintaining work satisfaction is to develop a consistent and sustainable rest aesthetic. 

Less is more

In Iceland, a study on the four-day work week was conducted and more than 2,500 workers participated. The results showed that workers actually maintained or increased their productivity over the four-year time period. Even more impactful, their wellbeing and work-life balance actually increased, proving that reduced work hours can correlate to more happiness and yes, more productivity. 

Entrepreneur and best-selling author Tim Ferriss has been arguing for short work weeks for years, claiming it’s more than possible to do less while earning more. “Focus on being productive instead of busy,” he writes in The 4-Hour Workweek. “Doing less is not being lazy. Don't give in to a culture that values personal sacrifice over personal productivity.”

As a society, we’ve been taught to embrace the hustle. While thousands of Americans are leaving work behind, thousands more are skipping their lunch break and extending their work day, leaving them exhausted and unable to focus on tasks at hand. Rest can feel like an impediment, especially when downtime is spent running through mental to-do lists, doing chores, or caring for children, but it’s, arguably, the most important part of your day.

“Without rest, we are not able to function to the best of our abilities,” says Cassandra Fallon, licensed marriage and family therapist at Thriveworks in Colorado Springs

Read more: 'The Long Friday': The Story of an Unpaid Labor Strike

Take a break: Learn how to rest during the work day

“Rest isn’t optional,” says Sally Anne Carroll, life and career intervention coach at Whole Life Strategies Coaching. “It’s key to sustainable productivity, creative thinking, and executive function.”

Carroll suggests thinking about rest as nourishing your mind, body, and spirit. You want to create a supportive environment that helps you be productive. The key, she explains, is to manage your energy, not your time. When you feel refreshed and rested, you can be more productive in the time you have to work.

Everyone’s rest aesthetic is different. For me, it’s completing difficult tasks in the morning so I can walk in the afternoon; cooking my lunch on the stove while listening to music, stretching, chatting with my partner without distractions, and getting eight hours of sleep.

For you, it could include yoga, meditation, taking a nap, or listening to a podcast. What matters isn’t what you do, but how you do it. If you’re taking walks, but running through work projects in your head, you’re not resting your brain. Rest means “ceasing work or movement in order to relax, refresh oneself.”

Carroll offers suggestions for adding rest to your work day:

  • Take lunch or coffee breaks (and actually step away from the computer).

  • Walk around the block.

  • Work in time for task-based or creative work. 

  • Create meeting agendas for tasks.

  • Stretch, exercise, or simply stand.

  • Stare out the window or step outside to get fresh air.

Clearing your mind from work and digital devices isn’t easy, especially when you’re working from home and constantly connected, but as a remote worker of nearly six years, I promise it’s possible. On my busiest days, I always schedule breaks, even if it means setting my alarm an hour early. 

Working nonstop, for hours on end, isn’t sustainable, no matter how busy you are. 

I once turned off my phone and took an hour-long yoga class the night of a work crisis. Why? Because I knew the problem couldn’t be solved overnight, and it was more productive and more beneficial to stay calm and rest my mind. Taking the deliberate break not only prepared me for the next day, but also kept me from getting mentally overwhelmed by the situation. Rest, I’ve learned, is non-negotiable. 

Read more: You Need More Rest. Here Are 3 Ways to Calm Down & Disconnect

Measuring the quality of rest

You might think that taking rests throughout the day makes it harder to stay focused or get tasks finished, but I would argue that you’re not resting or working effectively.

While scrolling social media, checking personal emails, or reading the news may feel like a break from work, Carroll advises against these tasks. In order to rest properly, you need to take at least five to 15 minutes throughout your day to actually rest

Getting distracted and calling that a “rest” doesn’t qualify, either. Your break needs to be intentional. One study published in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society found that rest-break intention was directly associated with decreased fatigue and distress over the workday. 

When you set the intention of resting, you’re more likely to take rests and those breaks will positively impact your mental health, and this makes you more apt to handle work stress.

As if that’s not enough motivation to rest more, science-based evidence reveals that workers working long hours (long days and/or long weeks) had a higher chance of experiencing occupational health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, injury, anxiety, depression, and work stress. 

Read more: Rest, Curated: 18 Playlists & Apps to Help You Chill Out

So if you want to stay happy and healthy at work, take that break. 

“We become less productive the more fatigued we become,” says Fallon. It’s important to know yourself and your body and stay aware of your mood and energy. If you find yourself making mistakes, losing your patience, or getting a shorter temper, Fallon says, then you probably need a reset. This could require a short break, a day off work, or changing the way you work. 

More and more employers are taking mental health seriously, so don’t be afraid to speak up at work. If you don’t have time for rest or if the rest isn’t enough, talk to your manager or HR director. They may suggest taking a long weekend, scheduling in a vacation, or simply rearranging your work schedule so you have time to rest and recharge during the work day.

If your employer isn’t understanding or is unwilling to support your mental health needs, it may be time to reconsider your job prospects

About our sources

Cassandra Fallon is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Thriveworks in Colorado Springs with additional training in animal assisted therapy, eye movement desensitization, and reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma treatments. She uses an array of counseling skills throughout her practice. Fallon has a passion for working with couples, families, and teens. Her approach with clients begins with a genuine caring relationship. 

Founder of Whole Life Strategies Coaching, Sally Anne Carroll is an internationally accredited life coach and career coach who helps clients navigate huge life changes, build courageous plans for what’s next, find more fulfilling jobs, get clear on their next career moves, launch and market creative businesses, achieve sustainable work-life balance and wellbeing, and generally say yes to what they want in life.

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