David Strittmatter

Do more and do better – the importance of breaks and rest

There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither. – Alan Cohen


  • It’s tempting to force ourselves to focus well past the point of fatigue
  • Unless we take care of rest and mental breaks and hold ourselves accountable, the quality of our work will suffer
  • Uncontrolled breaks become a distraction for our co-workers or fellow students as well

Practical advice:

  • The first step is to acknowledge that taking breaks is not a negative thing
  • Make sure you do something different in your break but don’t distract others from their work
  • Be rigorous: Make sure that you take your breaks and that it doesn’t last too long

Dear friend,

When I was a university student, I wanted to study as effectively as I could since I wanted an average of 1,0 (GPA equivalent of 4.0). To sustain 80 hours of effective study time per week in the exam period, though, I couldn’t simply work through all the study materials. Studying is much more about quality than quantity. Thus, I created a system.

Crucial parts of this system were to take controlled breaks and do sports. Paradoxically, while my fellow students were taking less and less time to eat healthy, exercise, and take breaks, I did the opposite and did even more sports, ate more consciously, and did more breaks.

In today’s blog article, I write about why breaks are crucial for high performance, discuss downsides of taking uncontrolled breaks, and share with you how I make sure to have enough quality breaks.

Why you need to take controlled breaks

When we’re striving to hit a deadline, or a tough challenge gets us feeling the pressure, it’s tempting to force ourselves to focus well past the point of fatigue.

But taking much-needed breaks is essential if we want to perform at our best. In fact, according to recent psychological studies, taking multiple short breaks leads to more creativity, productivity, life satisfaction, and quality of life. Rest and recovery is an issue not only of well-being but also of high performance.

When faced with long tasks, such as studying before a final exam or working on a presentation deck, it’s best to impose brief breaks on ourselves. Unless we take care of rest and mental breaks and hold ourselves accountable, the quality of our work will suffer.

It’s difficult to rest

I can totally understand that we stop caring for our well-being when we’re faced with lots of pressure. In stressful situations, we cannot think clearly and make well-thought decisions. We also feel that every second counts and we shouldn’t waste any second. Hence, rest and breaks seem to be a luxury we cannot afford.

And it’s not only us but our environment: When we take a break, we might be perceived as lazy by our boss, colleagues, team mates or fellow students.

Unfortunately, the way our society treats this issue isn’t optimal. Taking controlled breaks and resting is performance enhancing. And not paying attention to it causes not only stress and depressions but also worse cognitive and physiological results.

Yet, breaks, if not monitored and controlled, can become a distraction, not only for us taking them, but for our environment (co-workers, fellow students, etc.) as well. Stepping away from our desk or task can reduce our productivity because it creates a potential lapse in our focus and disrupts our flow.

Therefore, it’s key to develop the required discipline to take controlled breaks, which are predetermined and not spontaneous, time-limited, and pertinent (i. e. bring your productivity up again).

Make sure to take enough quality breaks

The first step is to acknowledge that taking breaks is not a negative thing, but actually beneficial for you and your performance in the long run. We might get more hours into the day by taking no breaks, but as I said, it’s the quality not the quantity. And work is a marathon not a sprint.

Second, work in sprints and use the Pomodoro Technique. This working mode implies a break down of work into intervals separated by short breaks. During the work periods, distractions should be limited to a minimum so that a strong focus level can be reached. I love working in chunks of 40-50 minutes combined with a 10 minute break. Traditionally, the Pomodoro Technique suggests working periods of 25 minutes and a 5 minute break.

Third, make sure you do something different but don’t distract others from their work. I love going for a quick walk (10 minutes), have a coffee or tea, daydream or check my smartphone for 5 minutes (this is pretty dangerous though!).

What’s really important, be rigorous: On the one hand, make sure that you take your breaks; on the other hand, ensure that your break don’t last too long. I always set a timer so that my working sessions and breaks are not too long and not too short.

Fourth, encourage your co-workers or learning buddies to do the same. This will help you to become less distracted while you work and will reduce the bad feeling when you take your well-deserved breaks.

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