Why stepping away from your desk makes you a better worker

Many of us are guilty of slogging it out at the computer for hours on end. But taking regular microbreaks offers a host of workday benefits.

Feeling too snowed under to leave your desk?

Even so, you should consider having a relaxing cup of tea or a quick walk around the block.

Researchers have found microbreaks of 10 minutes or less can alleviate fatigue and increase energy, while short breaks can boost performance, especially if you’re performing routine or creative tasks.

According to another study, thinking too hard for too long causes potentially toxic by-products to build up in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for cognitive control.

The result? Mental fatigue.

So, what is a microbreak?

Daniel Sih, author of Spacemaker: How to Unplug, Unwind and Think Clearly in the Digital Age, says a microbreak is simply a short break from office work to renew your mind and refocus your attention.

“Depending on the quality of your microbreak, assuming you disconnect from technology, 10 to 15 minutes is all you need to reset,” Daniel says.

A microbreak can be as easy as getting some sunlight for five minutes, stretching or switching up your environment, says Victoria Mills, the chief executive of Australian online coaching platform Hello Coach.

“It’s almost like you’re unplugging from a circuit board,” Victoria says.

How often should I take a microbreak?

The jury is out on how often to take a microbreak.

It’s really a matter of experimenting and seeing what works best for you.

Some people follow the pomodoro technique and take a five-minute break every 25 minutes.

Others like to work 60-90 minutes before taking a break.

Why is it so tricky to take microbreaks?

Victoria says pandemic work practices, particularly Zoom meetings, have made it harder than ever to separate work and play – so bad habits have crept in.

She says there’s also an addictive quality to screens that keeps pushing us to be switched on, do more and deliver more, which she says is “not how you get the best out of a human being”.

Victoria believes employers should be promoting self-care, and she walks the talk by scheduling in a forced lunch break each day for her team.

She also puts regular microbreaks in her diary and encourages staff to follow suit.

The benefits of leaving the desk

Victoria says regular microbreaks can help calm your brain and body (especially if you take that time to do a few stretches), leading to increased productivity and focus.

Short breaks can also lower stress levels and give your eyes a screen break.

Daniel says many of us attempt to rest by continuing the same neurological behaviour we use for work, such as swiping screens and using the internet, which means we rarely give our tired brains a proper rest.

“A microbreak is one strategy, among many, to make space from technology in order to rest your mind, recapture your energy and feel human again,” he says.

How to make the most of your microbreak

If you work on screens, Daniel says it’s vital to unplug from the internet – and yes, that definitely includes your phone.

So, no scanning Instagram or checking the news online.

“It’s a mental distraction and does not deliver any real benefit for your mental alertness or productivity,” he notes.

Daniel adds we need patterns or rhythms of unplugging each day – or we run the risk of working hard but achieving less or feeling generally anxious or lethargic.

Making time for microbreaks

Victoria recommends spending a little time at the start of each workday listing the big things you’d like to achieve and then scheduling microbreaks around that.

Think you’ll forget or be tempted to ignore your diary?

Set a phone reminder, she says.

And while you’re there, ditch the guilt about “wasting” time – by remembering microbreaks actually make you more productive.

Written by Larissa Ham.