Active breaks help the daily grind

The time we spend away from work can be as critical to our job’s success as when we clock in. That’s why active breaks – brief, focused, fun, and ready to go – are essential to my everyday routine. They keep me more productive and, on challenging work days, provide just enough fulfillment to keep the day palatable.

My active breaks all follow a pattern. They have natural stopping points that fall under thirty minutes. They demand lean forward, focused attention. No multi-tasking. No throwing something else on in the background. They are fulfilling and enjoyable to me, and only me. Active breaks aren’t for other people or my career growth. They are readily available, the kind of effort I can pick up almost any time; plans can change, and I never know when the mind needs a rest.

Active breaks work because their small time commitment means they can practically fit into any schedule. Focused attention on something fun can push work stressors out of the mind. Fulfillment grants a dopamine hit and a tiny sense of accomplishment. Those small wins can brighten your mood on tough days and avoid an emotional downward spiral. For these reasons, strategically deployed, active breaks can increase my productivity.

It took me too long to have these insights. Like many overly ambitious software engineers, I’d push myself for long, uninterrupted hours on a single coding effort early in my career. I’d tell myself that in exchange for a long slog in “the zone,” I’d be rewarded with a big break at the end of the day. Some days, everything clicked into place, and it felt amazing. But just as often, I’d end the day feeling stressed, unproductive, and cranky.

Later, I started taking breaks like a rational human being. I ran Pomodoro sessions and blocked out my work calendar for “me time” and lunch. My overall work life balance improved, but the breaks were hollow and forgettable. They trended towards mindless entertainment in the form of doom scrolling through Twitter, tech feeds, and New York Times headlines. They served to stop a negative (the onslaught of work) but added few positives. Occasionally, I would lose track of time and rush to catch up with work duties, adding to more stress. In a warped workaholic mindset on my worst days, that lack of fulfillment would cause me to work right through any breaks. I returned to square one in those no-break scenarios: tired, restless, and unfulfilled.

Shifting my breaks from passive to active changed everything. Over time, I’ve settled on a handful of “go to” activities centered on exercise, games, and books. Some days, I run a mini yoga session in my office (barefoot, work clothes still on, no mat) to remove back pains from the work grind. Or I’ll use my phone to run through a few back-to-back puzzlers in Puzzmo, one of my favorite discoveries last year. If I’m feeling especially adventurous, I’ll head downstairs to the TV, boot up the Xbox, and play a single action-filled multiplayer match. Alternatively, for something low key, I’ll grab a book from my shelf and read a chapter.

Everyone’s active breaks will be different. Find a handful that work for you. If you’re skeptical about their effectiveness, commit to trying at least one every workday for a week or two. A few strategic minutes of escapism can brighten your mood, add productivity, and give you a tiny spark of joy on an otherwise crappy day.