For many freelancers, the gig economy signifies the opportunity for endless earning potential. But even though more work means more money, there’s an opportunity cost: long hours lead to stress and burnout.
It’s not just freelancers who experience the strain. Only half of U.S. adults employed full-time work 40 or fewer hours a week, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. The average workweek is now 47 hours, with nearly one in five full-time workers clocking 60 hours or more (yikes).
While you might not have complete control over the hours you work, you can make one simple change to your day that will reduce your stress and decrease the likelihood that you feel overwhelmed at work: take more breaks. Work breaks are good for you.
Why You Need to Reset
A 2008 University of Illinois study showed that the brain is built to detect and respond to change. The study also suggested that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders your performance.
It seems counterintuitive, I know. But the data is clear. The more time you spend away from your screen during the day (within reason, of course), the more productive you’ll be.
Brief breaks are essential for creativity, better memory retention, higher concentration levels, lowering stress, and—if you’ve got a desk job—it’s even good for your eyesight.
The Type of Break Matters
Gossip, coffee, and snack breaks aren’t effective ways to unwind at work. Because they are often responses to fatigue or negativity in the first place, you don’t come back to work after these sorts of breaks feeling better. At best, you level out, but you certainly don’t level up.
The key to the perfect break from work is to mentally unplug from the job. Taking a walk or exercising, meditating, or having lunch with a friend are all awesome ways to break from the tedium of your work. Don’t have that kind of time? That’s okay! Researchers have shown that watching a funny eight-minute video or even just spending less than one minute looking at nature improves employee performance after they return to their desk.
Even if you can’t physically step away, take a few minutes several times a day to shut your eyes and drift off. Your brain activity increases when you let your mind wander.
Time Your Perfect Work Break
There are a variety of theories as to when to take breaks at work and for how long.
The most elite performers and athletes practice in 90-minute intervals with breaks between. Other studies suggest that the Pomodoro Technique is the answer, while other studies still suggest that only working for approximately an hour at a time is the secret to a more productive workday. Try a couple different models and see what works best for your brain and your to-do list.
And it might not be the same day over day. If you have back-to-back meetings, a longer break afterward might work best with your schedule. If you’re writing a blog post, short, brief breaks as you go will keep your creativity at its peak.
One thing seems to be certain. To reap the greatest rewards for your mental health, it’s important to take breaks early and often so your brain has an opportunity to refuel.