Why Taking A Bunch Of Breaks Wasn’t As Great As We Expected

Author

Rachel Gillett

September 29, 2014

We were all really looking forward to last week’s habit challenge: taking 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.

We’ve extolled the virtues of taking frequent breaks in several articles.

So when we read that researchers at social networking company the Draugiem Group discovered that the most productive people took exactly 17-minute breaks (away from their desks doing non-work related tasks) for every 52 minutes of work, we couldn’t wait to try it out and watch our productivity and happiness skyrocket.

The results of the challenge, sadly, did not live up to the hype.

More On Taking Breaks

We already found that frequent walks away from our desks is the quickest way to restore our physical and psychological energy.

But the 52:17 work-to-break ratio we proposed implementing for last week’s challenge proved more difficult and less refreshing.

By the end of our week of implementing this work-to-break ratio, that timing just seemed so arbitrary. Here’s why:

What We Hated

I was the only person in the office to keep the habit up for the entire week, which is likely due to knowing that I would be writing this article to share my results. Research has shown that when you are held accountable by sharing your goal with others, you are more likely to complete challenges you set for yourself.

Without this pressure of sticking to the challenge, our staff that took up the call found the challenge was not worth keeping up with for the entire week.

In fact, staff writer Rebecca Greenfield found it impossible to even begin.

The Timing Ratio Didn’t Work For Our Tasks
“When I first heard about the magical work-to not-work ratio, I wanted to try it out so badly,” Greenfield says. “I’m a very distracted worker that does all the things research says we, as productivity seekers, should not do. I crave discipline, but need breaks. A not-too-large chunk of working followed by a kind of decadent break sounded like just the thing for me.”

Catch Up On Past Habit Challenges

Unfortunately, Greenfield never got to see if this new habit would work for her. She laments that, with all the meetings and phone calls peppered throughout her day, she doesn’t have enough control over her schedule to work 52 minutes on, 17 off. “I can’t cut off a phone call mid-interview, or stop working on a time-sensitive project because it’s break time.”

Like Greenfield, other Fast Company staff found the mid-work interruptions were too much.

Assistant news editor Rose Pastore began and finished the challenge on Monday. For a day she took 17-minute breaks roughly every hour or so and used the time to walk a few laps around the office, make a fresh cup of tea, look out the office windows, and browse Reddit on her phone.

She soon discovered, though, that these timed breaks didn’t fit into her workflow as an editor with a news and social media team. “I found that it would be time for me to take a break, but I was still waiting for a writer to file a story, or I would be in the middle of editing a story that needed to publish as soon as possible.”

We Felt Guilty For Not Working
Likewise, Leadership editor Kathleen Davis found the rigidity of the challenge’s exact timing difficult to work with and kept up with challenge only periodically after the first day. On Monday she set a timer on her computer for 52 minutes, and, initially, when it rang she would stop what she was doing and take a 17-minute break. But when the day drew near to a close and she had work to get done before 6 p.m., she says there was no way she was going to stop and take a break–she kept working for another half hour.

The first day taking all those breaks felt like I was wasting time and that it prolonged my work day, which is part of why I didn’t keep it up the rest of the week.

“The first day taking all those breaks felt like I was wasting time and that it prolonged my work day, which is part of why I didn’t keep it up the rest of the week,” she says.

The hardest part for me was not leaving my desk–though I did find this nearly impossible at times, especially when in the thick of a project or on a writing spree. For me, 17 minutes of not doing work while at work seemed like a lifetime. It felt awkward and unnatural to sit idly by while the rest of the office was hard at work.

Davis also took issue with doing non-work for exactly 17 minutes throughout the day. “I’m all for taking a walk or eating lunch outside and reading a book, but 17 minutes was too short of an amount of time to do any of those things and too long of a time have a random chat with a coworker. I found myself feeling guilty for reading a magazine in the middle of the day and itching to get back to the long list of things I had left at my desk.”

What We Liked

While we took issue with a lot of what made up this challenge, this shouldn’t detract from the fact that we still think frequent breaks are great.

One benefit I found is that knowing you have only a certain amount of time to concentrate before you’re pulled away does give you an incentive to focus harder during that time. You quickly learn that 52 minutes flies by faster than you’d hoped, so you’ve got to give those fleeting moments of focus your all.

Pastore says that while her official work hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., she often finds herself staying late to finish up small tasks she could have done earlier in the day had she planned her time better. On the day she took frequent breaks, however, she finished work by 4 p.m. “That felt good!” she says.

After leaving work, Pastore says the day usually feels like a blur. But on the day she took frequent breaks, she left work feeling very clear-headed, and she even had some ideas for the rest of the week. “I think the frequent breaks gave my brain time to process the day in small chunks, which then made it easier to think about the bigger picture,” she says.

The frequent breaks gave my brain time to process the day in small chunks, which then made it easier to think about the bigger picture.

The takeaway for Pastore is that she will start taking breaks during the day, even if they’re not scheduled in advance. “I think that will help me better focus on longer-term goals, rather than getting bogged down in day-to-day tasks, as I tend to do.”

Davis plans to amend the challenge and use a timer to remind her to take shorter, five-minute breaks every hour or so. “The ringing alarm snapped me out of that ‘how did it get to be 3 p.m. already?’ state and reminded me to get up,” she says.

An added benefit: “Getting up and walking around the office more did actually lead me to more of those ‘chance encounters’ open office planners are always talking about.”

The Verdict: While the regimented method of working for 52 minutes and then taking 17-minute breaks didn’t work for us, it’s better than sitting in front of a computer for eight hours straight. I think it’s fair to suggest that we all compromise and meet somewhere in the middle.

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