How to Get the Most Out of Your Work Microbreaks

How to Get the Most Out of Your Work Microbreaks

When it comes to work – especially doing work requiring a lot of attention to detail, like both my day job and our renovation jobs – I’m a big believer in taking microbreaks. Microbreaks are just that, little breaks of 5 minutes or less that you take to sit back from a project, take a breath, get your focus back, maybe chat for a bit with a colleague, and in my case, grab a cup of coffee and do all of those things.

I’ve read articles for and against the idea that coffee breaks contribute to greater productivity. The ones against say that too much detachment from work makes it harder to get back into a project, that getting away from your work and outdoors actually makes you more tired, and a number of other things. We’re even saying that the sit-stand desk is good enough. But I have a hard time believing that we should give up on the idea of giving our eyes, our keyboards, and our brains a break, even a short one.

From my own personal experience, both from working and teaching, people only have so much ability to focus on a task. There’s a lot of research on just how long that attention span is, depending on what the person is doing. But sooner or later, during a project, you’re going to need to change things up a little or else you’ll start losing focus and making potentially sloppy mistakes.

The trick is not detaching completely from what you’re doing. You know how hard it can be sometimes to get back into a thought after you’ve been distracted by something and had your train of thought totally derailed.

So here are my best tips for how to hack your coffee break and get the breather you need without losing productivity.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Microbreaks

1. Get social with your ideas.

Just spent 45 minutes wrestling a problem, brainstorming, or had a flash of inspiration you’re excited about? Take a break with a colleague and discuss the problem or idea.

Not only is this social time great for you both mentally and emotionally, it helps improve your work relationships and helps you potentially get after your idea from another angle. Plus, I’ve found sometimes that I’ve figured out the solutions to problems a lot more quickly when I’ve stopped to explain them to someone else.

2. Get yourself moving.

Getting up and walking, jogging, or just stretching can improve your overall energy levels significantly. Get up from your desk and stretch, go for a short walk, or do something that might take you away from work. But here’s the kicker – to stay productive, take it with you.

Package up the project you’re working on mentally and reflect. Let the idea marinate a little as you get a change of venue, as you move. It seems like sometimes that’s all it takes to jog loose a new solution.

I do my best thinking not at the desk, but when I run. I’m grateful to Dragon Dictation for letting me gasp out some of those ideas and capture them in notes in the process.

3. Don’t set a timer.

I don’t think there’s some magic number of focus minutes each human being has. What happens if you’re in the groove on a project, things are coming together, and an alarm cuts through your concentration? Seems pretty counterproductive to me!

Instead, look for those natural signs that your brain needs a break. Are you reviewing every section of the document you need to read or are you skimming and skipping lines? Did you sketch in filler when you’re supposed to be putting in detail? Feeling frustrated? Those, to me, are the best times to back away.

4. Figure out what helps you power through low energy periods.

Coffee isn’t for everyone. I’m half-Swedish, a quarter French, and a quarter Italian, so I think my blood type is coffee. I know other people out there who have adverse reactions to it, and even get tired from it.

Instead, when you hit that 2:00 pm wall {or whenever yours is}, figure out what helps you get back on track to finish strong. Is your blood sugar low? Pack a snack that will give you energy and not send you into a sugar crash. Do you just plain drag during that time of the day? Schedule that time for work that doesn’t require focus, or maybe that’s a great time to go for a walk or run.

This is all about what works for you. Coffee works for me.

Hey, even looking at beautiful pictures of coffee perks me up.

So how about you guys? Are you believers in the microbreak, or do you think it’s an idea that has played out?



  • I love my coffee breaks! There is an amazing coffee shop at the bottom of my office building, so it’s the perfect amount of break time for me to get up, take the elevator down, grab a cup of coffee, and take the elevator back up. And, you are so right, usually if I let myself “marinate” on a problem, I either figure it out while getting my coffee, or come back with a much clearer mind and am able to solve it faster.

    • Sometimes just getting that temporary change of scenery is all you need to get a change of perspective!