I Break for Productivity

This morning I had the pleasure of talking with one of my best friends on the phone.  I reached her on her cell.  “Am I interrupting your workday?” I asked.

Nature Sounds Timer

source: http://onlineclock.net

“Well,” she said.”  “You are, but I’m having trouble feeling motivated to work lately.”

I could certainly relate.  I asked a few follow up questions, and together we identified four reasons we working moms sometimes struggle with motivation.

1.    We lack hard, impending deadlines.

2.    We get distracted trying to clear out urgent-but-not-important “to do” items (of both the personal and professional varieties) before we get to our important projects.

3.    We’re busy fighting the small and large metaphorical fires that arise daily in our professional and parenting worlds.

4.    We feel drained energetically from all that task-completion and fire-fighting.

Does any of this sound familiar?

My friend (who remains nameless here to protect her identity), then shared with me a piece of research that says the most productive performers work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by 17-minute breaks.  In other words, taking regular short breaks actually correlates with higher productivity.  Fascinating!

Our conversation turned to what helps us stay focused during our intensive work periods.  Here are three takeaways you might find useful.

1.    Stop feeling guilty for taking personal breaks during your workday.  The research says it’s not only permitted, it’s necessary!  Reallocate the time and energy you’ve freed up from worrying to your intensive work sessions or pleasure breaks.

2.    During your intensive work periods, increase your focus by engaging one of the five senses that you don’t need for your task at hand.  For example, while you read or write, listen to white noise, nature sounds, or lyric-free music.  Or if you need to listen intensively to audio recordings,  like my friend does, suck on a mint, sip a cup of tea, or light a scented candle. I don’t know the cognitive science behind why this works, but I know from my experience and others’  that it definitely does.

3.    Use a timer for your intensive work sessions and/or your breaks.  I like this online timer, because it comes with the aforementioned nature sounds, easy peasy.

Our 19 minute and 12 second conversation (aka break!) during our workday yielded higher productivity for both of us today. Hope it will for you too!

Have a tip for staying productive at work?  Please share it in the comments below.  Feeling like your productivity has waned so much that you need more than some tips to jump start it?  Let’s talk about how you and I can work together to get you highly productive again.

P.S.  I used the nature sounds timer while I wrote this post.


  1. Karen Dwyer

    I did some research many years back which set out to (and in fact did) prove that workers were more productive when intermittent reinforcement (reward) was issued upon task completion. I try to utilize this technique in my work, even if its just managing my children or managing the household. Selecting the right music for the job also helps : )

  2. @joshuabrickman

    I do it differently. I tend to take mini breaks between intense work. But its all about what kind of work you do too! If you are digging a ditch, you will need to drink some water at some point. I listen to music all day and it keeps me going for sure.

  3. Jennifer

    Love it! Don't laugh at me for asking this, but what are you "supposed" to do during your breaks?? Is this totally non-task time? Like read a book, dance around, lie down? Or is it, "get non-work work done," like make the dentist appointment or research a summer trip??

    • Debra Woog

      Jennifer, this is a great question! No laughing here. You are "supposed" to do whatever you'd like to do – it could be reading, resting, dancing, eating a snack, going for a walk, calling the dentist, or researching your summer trip. Anything not work-related. Take a pleasure break, and let me know what happens!
      My recent post I Break for Productivity

      • Jennifer

        ooooh—"pleasure break." I love how that sounds. And now I have the best idea for my next pleasure break: I'm going on Fandango's website to watch 17 minutes worth of movie previews!
        Thanks Debra!

        • Debra Woog

          Perfect choice for you! I learned the idea of a pleasure break from my last conversation with Geoff Laughton, who encouraged me to include pleasure in my daily routine rather than save it up for a once-in-a-blue-moon, several-hour event. So far so good, and it was cool to find that it coincides with the research!
          My recent post I Break for Productivity