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Taking effective breaks

Why breaks are key to your success

For most students, many aspects of academic work are challenging, boring, frustrating, effortful, and need to be completed on a tight timeline. Focusing in these situations is hard work. Consider how difficult you find it to stay on task when you’re doing your academic work. That’s an indication of how hard your brain has to work to resist distractions.

Because you have to work harder to stay focused when you’re doing academic work, you need frequent breaks to let your brain recharge. But it’s not enough just to take a break. The break actually needs to be restful.

  • You find yourself studying for hours at a time but don’t get much done
  • You wait to take a break until you get really stuck or have been very unfocused
  • Most of your breaks involve scrolling on your phone, looking at social media, or surfing the web
  • You can’t get back on track after a break

Working efficiently happens in mental sprints, not marathons. As a general rule of thumb, take breaks at least every 45-60 minutes–ideally more often.

Keep in mind, our ability to focus fluctuates depending on many factors. This means that you may need more frequent breaks on days you’re tired or dealing with a lot of stress. You may need fewer breaks when you work on tasks that take less effort.

Pomodoro Method

Graphic display of the pomodoro cycle described below.

If you’d like a more structured approach to taking breaks, try the Pomodoro method.

Here’s how it works:

Use a timer. Work for 25 minutes and then take a break for 5 minutes. After four cycles of this, take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. Then repeat.

This method was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s.

A break needs to be an actual break. That means fully stepping away from anything resembling work. If you’ve been working on a computer, choose a non-screen activity.

an infographic depicting the do's and don'ts of effective breaks described below.

Do these things

Change your scenery

Leave your workstation. Get yourself into a new environment.


Get your body moving. Walk if you’re able. Dance. Stretch. Do some quick yoga poses. Whatever helps you wake up and reset.

Listen to music

Choose something to work with your mood. Go for high energy if you’re tired. Find something calming if you’re anxious or overwhelmed. Avoid surfing the web or scrolling through your phone while you listen.


Connecting with friends and family is often best for longer breaks. Choose opportunities that are light and fun. Avoid using your breaks to address serious or emotionally activating situations. Let people know ahead of time when you will need to get back to work.


Doodle, draw, knit, journal, write creatively–all these forms of creative expression can be a great break from work that is more linear, logical, or factual.

Don’t make these mistakes

As you figure out what kind of breaks work best for you, keep in mind that there are some characteristics to avoid.

Emotionally charged activities

When we get emotionally activated, our neural activity changes in ways that make it harder to focus on academics. This is especially true when we experience fear or anger. We can’t always anticipate when we’ll encounter something emotionally activating. However, we can limit our exposure to things likely to be activating.

Activities that commonly make people agitated:

  • Reading the news
  • Scrolling through social media
  • Talking with people about upsetting situations
  • Gossiping
  • Anything else that you know can get you worked up
Making decisions

Decision making is surprisingly hard work for our brains. It tends to utilize many of the same areas needed to complete academic work. Breaks that leave us more tired than rested often require making decisions. For example, surfing the internet involves many decisions. You have to figure out what to search, what links to click on, what ads to ignore, and what information to skim and what to read more closely.

Activities that involve decision making:

  • Surfing the internet
  • Shopping
  • Making plans
  • Finding a video to watch
Hard-to-end activities

Breaks need to be relatively easy to end. Many digital activities are engineered to keep us engaged, which means they are not good choices for a quick break.

Activities that frequently become time sucks:

  • Social media
  • Surfing the internet
  • Watching shows
  • Gaming

You feel like you don’t deserve a break

It’s really hard to take a break when you haven’t been working productively. You may have an idea that breaks need to be “earned.” However, continuing to work in an unproductive way will not help you. Use your break as a way to reset. Get yourself on a break schedule and keep the work periods short (25 minutes or less). Put your energy toward keeping yourself on task for those work periods. You’ll get more done. You’ll feel better. And you’ll get your breaks.

You’re on a roll

It’s so tempting to keep working when you’re focused and knocking things out. However, our brains aren’t wired to be able to maintain that kind of effort for hours (or days on end). Sometimes it makes sense to work intensely.

If you can check out after your work period is over (keep in mind, the longer the work period, the longer the recovery), then you may decide it’s worth it to power through. However, if you need to continue to work productively for the rest of the day or week, you need to find a sustainable pace.

Remember, a break can be short. Five minutes or less is unlikely to kill your momentum and can make a big difference in your endurance. Just choose an activity that is both restful and easy to end.

You’re having trouble getting back to work

There are a few tricks to making sure you get back to work. Do them all if you know this is a particular challenge for you.

Infographic depicting the tricks to get back to work described below.

  • Jot down a sentence or two telling yourself exactly what you need to do next so you don’t have to think about it when you sit back down.
  • Set a timer for your break so you’ll be reminded when it needs to end even if you lose track of time.
  • Choose an activity that you find restful but not difficult to stop. Avoid emotionally charged activities and activities engineered to keep you engaged like social media (see above). These are very difficult to stop.
  • When you need to get back to work, break down what you need to do next into the smallest achievable task. Getting started is often the hardest part.

You’re still having a hard time staying on task

Many things can affect our focus. If you think you’ve got breaks locked down and you’re still having trouble staying on task, you may want to check out some of our related resources.

Addressing procrastination

Creating accountability

Structuring your day to maximize focus

Optimizing your workstation