When you’ve got a big deadline looming, a manager breathing down your neck, or just a lot on your plate, it’s tempting to think that you should just buckle down and work continuously throughout the day and into the evening. But not only is that “nose to the grindstone” mentality bad for your health and personal life, it’s also counterproductive.

Due both to attention fatigue, and to real changes in your sensory perceptions, it’s just not possible to concentrate over long periods of time without a serious decay in performance. In fact, one 2011 study found that the brain actually stop registering certain sensory stimuli if you’ve been attending to them for too long.

So, what can you do about it? Let’s take a deeper look at the science of breaks and examine a few ways to make the most of your time away from the desk.

1. Work in Sprints

When it comes to office work, no one is a long distance runner. Our bodies naturally move between alertness and fatigue in 90-minute cycles. Rather than trying to override these signals with caffeine, sugar, or stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, it’s best to embrace these cycles by working in sprints.

While 90-minutes on, 10 to 15-minutes off is ideal, sprints can be varied based on the task at hand. You may, for example, want a break after making 10 phone calls in 30 minutes, whereas a break every 2 hours might be better for reading a document you find particularly absorbing. Whatever time increments you settle on, have clear goals for each one so you know what you’re striving for.

Working in sprints will not only put you in better sync with your body, but it will also make you more efficient with your time. It can also prevent you from letting your breaks lapse into procrastination. Scheduled breaks force you to buckle down, work hard and push through road blocks for the allotted time, knowing you’re going to relax in a little bit.

business woman on lunch break

2. Take a Lunch Break

No matter what the situation, working at your desk is never a good idea, as we all need a longer break in the middle of the day to recharge those internal resources. And yet, a good one-third of employees regularly ignore this advice, much to the detriment of all.

Instead of powering through the day, take at least half an hour (and preferably longer) to grab a good meal in a different location with a non-work friend, go for a walk around the office park with a colleague, head to yoga or the gym, or just read a book someplace quiet. When you return to your desk, you’ll be refreshed and ready to take on the rest of your day.

3. Get Moving

A break doesn’t always have to mean stopping work entirely. Sometimes, just changing the venue and getting that heart pumping can be break enough. If the logistics allow it, try meeting with colleagues in a fresh, off-campus environment to get those ideas flowing. Or, make like The West Wing and have yourself a walk and talk, though perhaps take it to a more peaceful setting. Pairing movement with collaboration will spark ideas and energize the entire team in ways sitting in an office simply can’t.

4. Make Good Use of All of Your Vacation Time

There’s a reason more and more companies are lengthening or doing away entirely with vacation time limits. Going away for a bit is the ultimate relaxer and refresher for employees who are burnt out and lacking in new ideas. Knowing a vacation is upcoming also motivates employees to be more efficient and productive when they are in town, as they work hard to get ahead before their absence. No matter what your company’s vacation policy, make sure to take advantage of every day of you’ve got.

5. Let Go of Guilt

If you’re still feeling guilty about taking that break, just listen to Parkinson’s Law, which states that, “a task expands to fit the time allotted to it.” It’s well-documented that most people don’t actually work 8 hours a day, even if they’re at their desks for that amount of time or longer. Rather than focusing on the sheer amount of time you spend at the office, focus on how much you’re getting done, and how efficiently you’re doing it.

You’d be amazed how much faster you’ll work knowing that you’ve got a break coming up in half an hour.
How do you make the most of your breaks? Let us know in the comments below.

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Leah Kaminsky is a writer and blogs for Goldtouch, an ergonomic keyboard company located in Cedar Park, Texas. When not working on her fiction writing, you can find her jogging with a dorky pastel visor on (hey, a girl has to protect her face). You can follow her at @JustStartApps.