Every freelancer has the same basic goals: Slay tasks. Stay focused. Finish projects in a timely manner. Of course, all of these require that you remain effectively glued to your Mac for hours on end. But in this effort to really get your work done, you may be missing out on one critical key to attaining killer levels of productivity: scheduling breaks into your work day.
If you’re struggling to tackle your workload and meet your deadlines, it might seem counterintuitive to take breaks. You need to work more, not less, right? Not necessarily. Scheduling 10-15 minute breaks throughout your day can actually help you get more done, more quickly. Breaks can help you remain focused, creative, and rested, in turn preventing productivity-killing burnout. Finally, breaks can help you achieve a better sense of overall well-being — making you a happier, more fulfilled worker.
Breaks Help Your Brain Reboot
Chances are that much of your work as a freelancer is “think work,” which is done in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of your brain. This is the part of your brain that keeps you focused on your goals, allows you to think logically, and helps you exercise willpower. During your work hours, your PFC is functioning at a high level — it needs a break, too!
Take a Break & Make Better Decisions
Have you ever heard the expression, “Sleep on it”? When you’re trying to make a difficult decision at the end of the day, your brain is fatigued. You’re not ready to make a wise choice. “Sleeping on” your decision allows your brain to rest overnight and helps you to make a potentially better decision in the morning.
You probably don’t have the luxury of going to sleep in the middle of your workday, but you can walk away from your work for a few minutes and give your brain a much-needed opportunity to recover from so-called “decision fatigue.” Ultimately, you’ll be able to make a better decision before sending off that email, setting a rate for a new client, or deciding on a title for your next presentation.
Generate More “Aha” Moments
“Aha” moments are instances of inspiration and clarity that help you make progress and achieve breakthroughs during your work day. If you’re a creative, you need inspiration to design a book cover for a client, generate website copy, or cut a new promo video. If you’re a CEO, you need inspiration to shape the vision for your team. If you’re a manager, you need inspiration to problem-solve.
In any case, it may be difficult to come by bursts of inspiration when you’re stressed out or bogged down by multiple other tasks or decisions. Taking a break from your workflow — and even shifting to an unrelated task — can help your brain break out of a rut and come to the “aha!” moment it needs to move forward. Click To Tweet
Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras points out a phenomenon called “Troxier Fading” — continual attention to a stationary object in your peripheral vision will actually cause the item to disappear. He believes the same applies to our thought life: Too much focus on one task, and the task will “disappear,” making it more difficult to resolve or move forward.
Taking a break can help your brain re-focus on your work and reduce what psychologists call “vigilance decrement,” or the incremental deterioration of your vigilant focus on the task at hand.
Breaks Prevent Burnout
Freelancers are typically driven and achievement-oriented. And while these qualities have most likely served you well in developing your freelancing career, they can also cause you to ignore symptoms of burnout.
If you’re completely exhausted — mentally, physically, and emotionally — it will be difficult to get any work done at all. Taking short breaks throughout your day can help prevent you from reaching your “breaking point.” Instead, you’ll continue to feel rested, healthy, and productive.
Burnout Happens More Than You Think
Burnout has been declared an official medical diagnosis by the World Health Organization. The organization defines it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” In one survey of 7,500 full-time employees, 23% of respondents reported feeling burnt out at work “very often.”
Symptoms of Burnout
Although you may not be working in an office, you may also be experiencing feelings that come with burnout, including disillusionment, frustration, and hopelessness with your work. Other symptoms include:
- Incurable fatigue
- Loss of appetite
If you begin to notice these symptoms and you’ve been dealing with a heavy workload, you may be experiencing burnout (you should also consult a medical provider).
Taking short breaks can help prevent you from getting to the breaking point of burnout. It’s important to rest, re-center, and remember that ultimately, you are a human before you are a worker!
How To: Schedule and Take Breaks Wisely
By now, it’s probably clear that taking breaks can help you become a better worker and a healthier person. But taking breaks requires discipline and intentionality. An effective, restorative break is not a few minutes of scrolling through Instagram, or zoning out while sifting through your inbox. A break is a well-planned, intentional space for taking care of your mind and body during your workday.
Here’s how to take breaks well:
Use Timing to Schedule Breaks Wisely
It’s not always a good idea to take a break. You don’t want to take a break in the middle of a creative flow, or during your most productive work hours. You’ll want to take a break while you’re already prone to becoming distracted, or while your body is naturally signaling for you to stop working.
Timing can help you to monitor natural lags in productivity. In the Overview tab, you’ll see that your most productive hours are displayed in a bar graph in the upper left quadrant. This will help you identify when you’re most focused and productive — and when you may need to call it quits for a few minutes.
Here’s what your Overview tab looks like, with the most productive hours displayed in green:
For example, you might see that you’re extremely productive from 1pm-3pm, but you tend to lag by mid-afternoon. This might be a good time for you to schedule a 20-minute break so that you can reboot your brain and finish the afternoon well.
You can even use the calendar function in Timing to schedule your breaks, helping you to stay accountable about stepping away from your Mac to get refreshed and re-set.
Get Creative with Your Breaks
As mentioned above, a break isn’t a time to refocus your attention on another screen (ahem, your iPhone). It’s a time to step away from your devices, get your body moving, and let your brain regenerate its mental reserves.
Here are some ideas for taking a restorative break:
- Take a walk. If you’re able, take a 10-15 minute walk. Breathe in some fresh air, absorb some sunshine, and get your blood flowing.
- Stretch. Take a break from your sedentary position at your desk (which can wreak havoc on your back and neck), and do some light stretching. Try doing lunges, stretching your hamstrings, and rolling your neck around.
- Mindful breathing. Step away from your devices, sit somewhere comfortable, and do some mindful breathing. Try the 4-7-8 technique: Breathe in through your nostrils for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds, and release for a full 8 seconds through your mouth. A few rounds of this can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, and get you mentally re-centered.
A Final Word on Breaks & Time Management
Remember that taking breaks is a strategy for helping you to become a better, more productive, and healthier freelancer. When you’re strategic with how you take breaks, you’ll see increases in productivity and efficiency.
To ensure that you’re taking breaks wisely, use Timing to see how your time usage is affected by a couple of 10-15 minute daily breaks. You may even see that you’re able to work longer, more effective hours by giving yourself a few minutes of freedom. To try Timing for free, click here.