You probably have heard that you should take breaks. In fact, there a quite a few studies showing that breaks are essential for optimal performance. However, even though these studies mention the importance of breaks they do not tell you how to take them properly. So how often should you take breaks and how long should they be?
As a general rule, you should take short breaks (about 15 minutes) for every hour of focused work and longer breaks (about 30 minutes) every 2 or 4 hours of work. However, the ideal break time differs from person to person. Determining what works best for you might require some experimentation. Also, the timing of the breaks is as important as their length. It is recommendable to take your longer breaks during times in the day when you are less efficient.
I have arrived at this recommendation after surveying a bunch of studies and articles on the subject. Believe me, this topic is a hot potato since it seems that everyone has their own opinion on the subject. So let’s see what researchers and other people have to say – maybe you will find something that will resonate with you.
The ideal timing of a break – 3 schools of thought
There are essentially three main schools of thought regarding the ideal timing of a break:
- The Pomodoro (25 minute) School.
- The 50 minute School.
- The Ultradian (90 minute) School.
Let’s begin with the Pomodoro School. These are people that subscribe to the Pomodoro Technique, which essentially involves studying in chunks of 25 minutes with a 5-minute break in between. After four periods of 25 minutes, you should take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.
The second school of thought is the one that suggests working in approximately 50 minute intervals with about 10-minute breaks in between. This school of thought actually has quite a lot of backing by research as well:
- DeskTime (time management app) studied its 40,000 users. They concluded that working for 52 minutes with 17-minute breaks in between allowed to achieve the most optimal performance.
- A study by the University of Illinois study suggests taking a break once every hour.
This school of thought also has some avid supporters. Among them is Cal Newport (the author of Deep Work), MIT (they recommend this on their official website), and some study YouTubers such as Study Vibes.
The third school of thought is a school that I call Ultradian school. It endorses studying in chunks of about 90 minutes with about 20-minute breaks in between. This school has also some backing by research:
- Research by the United States Army research institute concluded that our performance follows ultradian rhythms (90-minute cycles).
- Research by Tony Schwartz (founder of Energy Project) shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes.
- Psychologist Anders Ericsson studied violinists and found that top performers had the following characteristics:
- They practiced in the morning
- They practiced for three sessions
- Each session was 90 minutes or less
- There was a break between each session
As you can see this school has also followers, which people such as Tony Schwartz (founder of Energy Project) and Robert Pozen (senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours.”).
So which one you should choose?
All though you are more than welcome to choose the school of your liking here is my opinion on the matter (this is just an opinion feel free to ignore it )
For most students, I would recommend studying for about 50 minutes with 15-minute breaks in between. This is because such intervals are based on quite solid research and also because most of the students will find it difficult to concentrate for more than 50 minutes.
However, to achieve the best results I believe that one should combine all of these three schools to fit his own situation. When you can pull off a 90-minute study session – you should do it and then take a larger 20-minute break. If you feel that you can’t concentrate for 90 minutes then you can try studying for about 50 minutes and take a shorter break of about 15 minutes. And if you feel really lazy or maybe do not have much time – then do a quick burst of 25-minute studying.
What is the underlying reasoning behind such a recommendation?
If used solely be themselves I believe these schools are flawed since they do not take into account the specific situation of the individual. In particular, these schools fail to address the following factors:
- type of the task – if the task is extremely intensive or cognitively demanding (such as trying to write a mathematical proof) doing it for more than 25 or 50 minutes might be impossible. Thus, the more intensive the task the shorter the study period should be.
- the person’s schedule and obligations – what if you do not have the luxury to study for 90 minutes or what if the time during which you are free is not optimal for deep concentration. You should optimize your study periods in a way that works best with your current schedule.
- the person’s ability to concentrate – there are people who just do not have the ability to concentrate for 90 minutes. It takes time to build one’s ability to concentrate and work. According to Cal Newport (the author of Deep Work) one ability to focus is like a muscle that you need to train.
- the state of your mind – if are extremely focused or in a state called “flow” – interrupting this state of concentration to make a break might be counterproductive. Make a break when you need it or when your focus wavering, not when your concentration is at its best.
- stage in the task – if you are just about to finish a certain task taking the extra 5 minutes to do it could be more efficient than taking a break and then having to spend 15 minutes to do the same work (because you will need to take some time to remember what you were doing in the first place).
- various interruptions that might arise – what if the middle of your 90-minute session you suddenly feel like you really need to use the bathroom? or maybe you really need to deal with some sort of distraction because it might become a large problem later on? Sometimes it is better to interrupt one’s work routine in order to deal with some urgent issues before they become even more problematic.
- Time in the day and your chronotype. Depending on your chronotype you will more productive during certain times of the day. Dan Pink in his book provides a great summary of the best times for each chronotype (see the table below). Read this post if you want to learn more about the perfect time to study.
|Lark – 14%||Third Bird – 65%||Owl – 21 %|
|Analytic tasks||Early morning||Early to mid-morning||Late afternoon and evening|
|Insight tasks||Late afternoon/ early evening||Late afternoon/ early evening||Morning|
Depending on these seven factors it might make sense to study in larger or smaller chunks. Generally, you should study as long as your situation permits, but not longer than about 90 minutes (because then our productivity tends to go down). Also, you should have your longer study sessions during the times of the day when you are the most productive (for most people mornings and afternoons).
As Robert Pozen says:
“The real question is what is the appropriate time period of concentrated work you can do before taking a break?”
What should you do during the break?
What you do during the break is as important as what you do while studying or working. Breaks should be for rest and nothing else, or by the definition they would not be breaks.
Therefore there are several guidelines (based on article by Inc) for having a proper break:
- try to use no screens ( no smartphones, no computers, TV, social media, etc.)
- no cognitively intensive activities (i.e. do not work during your break)
- don’t create new distractions (don’t do something that will, later on, distract you from work)
- take a short walk
- make some tea, coffee, or just go and grab some other drink
- get a snack
- have a small chat
- tidy up or organize your workspace
- take a quick shower
- run a quick errand
- do something creative like drawing
- do some journaling
- deep breathing
- get a proper meal (if it is a longer break)
- exercise (run, yoga, etc.) (if it is a longer break)
- take a nap (but not more than 20 minutes!)
Timing and executing a perfect break is essentially an art. The perfect break requires you to know yourself and your situation. Sometimes it will make sense to study less and sometimes it will make sense to study more. It’s all about experimentation.