Enhance Your Productivity in 20 Minutes or Less: A “Smart Break”
is the Key
By Peter McLaughlin
If you tend to feel “run down,” “burnt out,” or just plain tired by
mid-afternoon, you’re not alone. Many studies show that people
naturally experience a drop in energy and alertness around 3 p.m.,
when the body’s circadian rhythms take a plunge. Chronobiologists
call this time of day “the breaking point.”
Unfortunately, many people attempt to get through this natural low
time in unhealthy ways. They raid the office vending machines,
believing that caffeinated beverages and sugary snacks will give
them the energy they need. While the soda and candy does give them a
short energy spurt, within an hour they often experience the “crash”
and end up feeling more tired than they did initially. Even worse,
they repeat this cycle daily.
Rather than succumb to the lure of the vending machine, consider
taking a 10- to 20-minute “smart break”—a break that physiologically
and psychologically rejuvenates you so you can refocus on your most
important tasks. By doing so, you will feel more energized for the
balance of the day, with a net gain to the overall quantity and
quality of your work.
The smart break is smart for a number of reasons:
1. It’s specially designed to give you a high-powered recovery period
that recharges your physical energy, emotional balance, and mental
2. It affords a quick “attitude adjustment” interval, during which you
can check your mental thermostat and consciously turn it a few
notches to the positive.
3. It’s a performance booster, enabling you to review your daily
objectives, stay focused on key priorities, and make the last
quarter or so of your work day as productive as possible.
Smart and Essential Components: A smart break has two
important components: 1) A relaxation component, and 2) An energy
The relaxation component is downtime. It includes activities like
closing your eyes, deep breathing, or muscle relaxation. The goal
here is for you to step back from the intense effort you’ve been
exerting all day so you can de-activate, disengage, and totally
relax for these few minutes (or few seconds, if that’s all you can
In the energy boosting part of your break, you reactivate,
reinvigorate, and prepare yourself for a productive afternoon of
work. This segment is what makes the smart break a
performance-enhancing tool. Instead of having your productivity
steadily decline until you pack up for home, a smart break helps you
access a higher level of functioning, where you’re firing on all
cylinders. You’re refocused on your priorities and recommitted to a
Practical Tips: So, what you can do during your
smart break to trigger both the necessary components? The answer is
that the break has to be simple and flexible enough to fit into your
schedule and environment, but significant enough to revitalize your
energy and performance levels. Following are examples of activities
to include in your smart break:
you’re tired (and if your environment is appropriate), lie down
on the floor or put your head on your desk for a few minutes.
Set an alarm clock for 15 minutes in case you fall asleep.
Studies show that a short “cat nap” for 20 minutes or less
re-energizes the brain and keeps people productive.
Switch to a less demanding activity to give your brain a rest.
Read the paper, listen to music, check e-mail, etc. Especially
if you’re involved in a creative or thinking-intensive task,
momentarily switching to something mundane activates a new part
of your brain, which triggers alertness.
for a brief, brisk walk. A 10-15 minute walk gets your heart
pumping and your blood circulating, giving much needed oxygen to
your brain. If you can’t get away for a walk, then get up from
your desk and do some light stretching, or at least check your
posture and straighten up.
light, healthy snack. Avoid sugary or fried foods. Fruit, nuts,
or cheese are smart options for mid-day snacking.
a glass of water or decaffeinated tea. Caffeine will actually
dehydrate you, causing you to feel tired.
deep-breathing exercise, which will quiet and clear your mind.
Seek out something humorous, but be careful not
to spend the rest of your day there. Laughter releases brain
chemicals that relax us and make us feel good.
your daily plans and priorities to make sure you’re focused on
what you need to complete today. If you’re not making progress
on your daily objectives, make a plan to get back on track
your attitude; make it energized, relaxed, focused, and fun. You
are what you think. If you constantly tell yourself, “I’m
tired,” then you will feel tired. But if you tell yourself, “I
feel energized and ready to finish the day with a bang,” then
Commit to finishing the day strong, with a flourish of
While you can do any combination of items on this list (and can
likely think of more things to add) the last three items are
non-negotiable. You have to do these to make the smart break work
Ideally, your smart break should last 10-20 minutes. That’s what
experts say gives your body and brain an optimal period of
rejuvenation. Now, reality dictates that many afternoons you don’t
have 5 minutes to slow down, much less 20. However, even if you’re
blazing around at 100 miles per hour, you can have an “on-the-fly”
break that consists of taking a couple deep breaths, straightening
your posture, reviewing your priorities, and committing to finish
the day strong.
Take a Smart Break Today: To experience the
benefits of your smart break, you have to take it. Schedule it and
make it automatic. Think of it as a “productivity break” if that
makes you feel better about not working for a few minutes. Tell
yourself, “The fourth quarter is mine”…and it will be!
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about Peter McLaughlin.
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