5 tips for taking energising breaks

If you don't take breaks during the working day, your brain will run out of fuel. You'll slow down, make more mistakes and make poorer decisions. Here are 5 tips for taking breaks that prevent stress and increase efficiency.

"Quiet and restitution don't just belong in your holidays or weekends. Breaks should be an integrated part of your daily workday."

This is how Nanna Schjerning begins her story about the importance of the break for a good working life. She is the founder of the consultancy Pretty Future and advises companies on how to create a mentally healthier and more sustainable working life. She sees breaks during the working day as crucial to creating good working conditions for our brains. 

A working day without breaks = drinking two beers

According to Nanna Schjerning, many people see breaks as the antithesis of work - and in some places as shirking one's work - and as something that doesn't add value to the workplace. This is reflected, for example, in our employment contracts, which in some places state that lunch breaks are unpaid. This sends a signal that we are not working when we take breaks.

"We're not lazy or doing nothing when we take a break. The brain is still active, but we use other centres of the brain. Namely, the centres that make us see connections and think creatively. That's why many of us often find that it's in the shower that we get the good ideas," Nanna explains, continuing with a metaphor: "It's like the wave, where the crest (the work) could never emerge without the trough (the break)."

As an IDA member, you are a knowledge worker and need to take breaks as much as people with physical jobs. But it can be harder to feel your body's signals when your brain is tired than when your back is complaining.

"If you don't take breaks during your working day, you become less efficient, less creative, make worse decisions and make more mistakes. Without breaks, your cognitive abilities decline continuously throughout the day. This is roughly comparable to drinking two beers during the working day. And no workplace today will allow that, with good reason. But in fact, we should treat not taking breaks during the working day with as much seriousness as drinking alcohol during working hours," says the break expert. She continues by stressing the importance of the break: "A good break recharges virtually all mental functions from attention span and concentration to creative thinking. And breaks prevent both stress and burnout in the long term."

Leave your phone when you take a break

Nanna Schjerning has some concrete pieces of advice for your breaks, but first she likes to stress that there is no one size fits all-model. What constitutes a good break for you depends on who you are as a person, what type of work you do, what your day is like (e.g. whether you've been sleeping well) and what kind of work situation you're in. The more pressured you are, the more breaks you need. So you need to practice noticing your body's needs and signals. However, there are a number of rules of thumb you can follow:

WHERE should I be? Get up and physically move away from your desk. Move to a window to get something else to look at where you don't have to focus. Feel free to take a walk outside. Fresh air and daylight are good for the brain and, in addition, have a positive effect on sleep. Explore the area around your workplace to find good places to take a break. You can also check the office building you are in. Perhaps the canteen is a good place to take a break in the morning and afternoon, or you discover unknown nooks and crannies of peace and quiet.

WHAT should I do during the break? The most important thing is to give your brain a break from problem-solving. This also means that the break should preferably be free from mobile devices. If you start answering private emails or coordinating playdates for the kids, your brain will start working again. That's why it can also be a good idea to take your lunch break off from solving professional problems with colleagues. Your break activity should give your brain a mental gear shift. Some people also relax with Sudoku, puzzles or a game of table football with colleagues.

WHEN should I take a break? Take 1-2 breaks during the working day - in addition to your lunch break. Feel free to set aside time in your calendar. Scheduling breaks may seem artificial, but it can help you get started. Even if you feel the working day is just getting started, the morning break is important. A study of employees at an insurance company showed that when they took a daily 20-minute break in the morning, their stress levels decreased and they became more efficient (article in Politiken on the trial (in Danish)). So it's a good investment to take a break before you get so overheated that you have to spend energy cooling down again.

HOW LONG should I take a break? The lunch break will usually be 30 minutes, and 15 minutes is clearly preferable for the morning and afternoon breaks. If you have a longer break in the morning, you might be able to manage with 5-10 minutes in the afternoon. And the 2-3 minute micro-breaks during a task change are also worthwhile. Close your eyes, for example, or allow yourself to daydream about something you're looking forward to or enjoy.

WHO should I take a break with? Whether you prefer chatting with your colleagues or time to yourself depends a lot on who you are. And it can change from day to day. However, it is important to say that quiet moments by yourself are good for your brain. So make quiet time in your own company a priority for at least one of your breaks - especially if your work involves a lot of meetings or a lot of chatting in an open plan office.

According to Nanna Schjerning, the pieces of advice can be transferred to breaks in the home office: 'Breaks in the home office are at least as important - and perhaps even more important. In online meetings, the brain is working at full speed as it compensates for the fact that it is harder to read human signals than when we are physically together. And there are plenty of break activities available at home which let the the brain relax, such as doing the dishes or folding the laundry."

And then there is procrastination. What should we do about that? Here the expert is clear: "Procrastination doesn't count as breaks. But when you procrastinate, it is a signal to you that you need to take a break. The break is a conscious choice to do something good for yourself. Procrastination has the opposite effect and needs to be turned into a smart break."

Start the conversation about the breaks and go exploring

Do you find that your workplace looks askance at those who take breaks, or do you find it difficult to take breaks yourself because you fear it sends a signal to your manager and colleagues that you are not doing anything? Then it might be a good idea to start a conversation about break culture. For example, forward this article to your manager with a suggestion that you have a joint conversation about your break culture. Maybe you should start by talking about what really "counts" as work and share experiences about good breaks. 

As a concrete tip, Nanna Schjerning says: "You can help create a good break culture by suggesting that instead of a lunch meeting, you hold the meeting and lunch separately, as this will make the meeting more efficient." She stresses that although you share the responsibility of creating a healthy break culture, the manager has an important responsibility to provide good conditions for breaks and to protect them. In addition, the manager needs to be a role model by taking breaks themselves and not rushing from one meeting to the next with a sandwich under their arm. 

If you personally and you as a department can make a basic decision that breaks are also work and necessary to thrive both at work and at home, the first step to building new break habits is taken.

In conclusion, Nanna Schjerning encourages you to practice and be curious. Try out different break activities and explore the possibilities both inside and outside your workplace. Your first good break can be spent exploring for good spots in the building, and your next can be spent walking outside and looking around for a bench or tree. That's how you get started. Enjoy your break!

The 5 break tips in short form:

  • Physically move away from your desk and spend at least one of your breaks in fresh air and daylight - and preferably in motion
  • Take a screen-free break and do something where your brain relaxes
  • Take two breaks in addition to lunch, and remember that the morning break is the best investment
  • Remember the micro-breaks of 2-3 minutes during task changes
  • Prioritise quiet alone-time every day.

About Nanna Schjerning

Nanna Schjerning, work life futurist and trend spotter with a focus on sustainable work life and smart breaks during the working day and in working life. Owner of the consultancy PRETTY FUTURE. Read more at