Sometimes the effort to stay alive, awake, and mildly productive through a whole work day can become a full-on job, in and of itself. You can do everything possible to seize the day, from getting a full night's sleep to eating a protein-packed breakfast, and still, it can often feel like an insurmountable task to be fully alert when you need to, on any given weekday. But there's a chance your productivity (or rather, your lack thereof) is all about your break time: The best time to take a break at work may not exactly be the time you'd think it is, and this might just be the reason why you're feeling so sleepy by mid-afternoon each day.
According to a 2015 study carried out by researchers at Baylor University, the best time to take a break from work is, ironically, earlier in the day. If you're like me, then you definitely thought that the perfect break time was around 2 p.m. or so, when you're feeling that post-lunch urge to snooze, and you're getting tired of staring at a screen. But, as it turns out, it might be too late to restore your productivity if you wait that long to step away from your work.
If you wait to take a break until the afternoon, the study reports, the damage may already be done: You might be burnt out for the day.
Baylor University researchers Emily Hunter, Ph.D., and Cindy Wu, Ph.D., asked a total of 95 working adults between the ages of 22 and 67 to describe the breaks they took over a five-day work week, where "breaks" included, but weren't limited to, lunch breaks, coffee breaks, taking time for personal emails, and socializing with co-workers. After analyzing the survey responses, the researchers found that those who took breaks earlier in the day (around 10 or 11 a.m.) reported "more energy, concentration and motivation," compared to those who saved their breaks for the afternoon, The Washington Post reports.
What's more, the researchers found that people get more out of their breaks when they do something they genuinely want to do during that downtime, and that doesn't necessarily exclude work-related tasks, according to the study's findings. In other words, you don't have to go for a walk during your break if that's not something you like to do. Instead, if you actually kind of like putting your music on, and going through the mindless task of filling out an excel sheet, because it's less grueling than, say, working on that progress report your boss wants from you, that busy-work task could still count as a "break" of sorts that benefits your productivity throughout the day.
This is all sounds like good news, right? You simply move your work break up by a few hours, and you'll be an unstoppably productive machine of a worker?
Well, not exactly. There's one significant problem with these findings: Those morning hours may be a good time to take a break, but they're also consistently shown to be the most productive point of the day for many people, as shown by data collected from thousands of employees working for the project management software platform, Redbooth.
According to those findings, your most productive point for the entire week is around 11 a.m. every Monday.
Interestingly enough, the results of the Baylor University research, and the findings from the Redbooth data, conflict with one another, because they're grounded in the same fundamental truth: You tend to reach peak alertness between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m., Quartz reports, making it an ideal time to work and to take a break. Quite the conundrum, right?
The work part is obvious: People are usually more productive in the morning, at least in part, because they're more awake, well-rested, and mentally focused, a capacity which stretches and wanes into a more drowsy state by mid to late afternoon. But the idea of taking a break during your most wakeful point is a little more interesting: According to Emily Hunter, Ph.D., one of the Baylor University researchers involved in the institution's study, people shouldn't wait until they're totally burnt out to take a break. She told The Washington Post,
We think we’re like our cell phones, and we should deplete all the way to zero percent before we recharge back up. But we have to charge more frequently.
By taking breaks in the mid-morning hours, rather than the afternoon, she explained, "we're not allowing ourselves to get so depleted that we're at the point where we want to just get to the end of the day."
Taking a break when you're at peak productivity may seem like a bit of a risk — but it just might pay off.
In other words, taking a break at the tail-end of your most wakeful hours (right around 11 a.m., which is when you might think you should really get cranking) might just allow you to recharge before becoming totally burnt out, thus stretching your productivity well into the afternoon.
The truth is, this might be a bit of a toss-up each day when you're trying to decide whether to keep on powering through work, or take a 20-minute break. Besides, many people don't have complete agency over their work day, anyway, and in that case, you have to be flexible with things like scheduled meetings and phone calls.
Ultimately, though, it might be worth a shot to move your break up a little earlier in the day, just to see how that works for you. Mid-morning coffee run, anyone?