Performance, Productivity, Work

How to recharge during the workday – take a microbreak.

Monica Pham

This world is full of digital distractions, such that one of the biggest challenges for employees is how to maintain adequate focus and attention levels whilst at work. This article discusses how to use micro-breaks to take on altered routines or even using micro e-learning experiences, that can create new ideas or aid in new energising thoughts.

This challenge becomes even more pronounced when feeling short on time, or when a lot is going on. One common, but less effective approach taken by many people is to multi-task in an attempt to keep momentum and productivity going. This can have an adverse effect and cause increased fatigue.

Emerging research, however, provides us with another option: take a micro-break or micro e-learning experience of 10 minutes or less. 

To explore this further, a team of researchers from the US conducted a mixed-methods study (2020) to understand the impact of micro-breaks on employee’s attention and energy levels.  

The key aim of the research was to test the impact of micro-break duration (1, 5, 9 minutes) and the type of activity undertaken on the micro-break on their recovery (e.g., attention and energy). In addition, researchers also sought to understand the subjective experience of the micro-break (i.e., how enjoyable or relaxing was it.)

There were two key parts to the research study. First, the researchers conducted qualitative interviews with 16 “control room” shift workers to understand various experiences of taking micro-breaks on attention and energy levels. These types of jobs were chosen given the high attention, low error margins, and long shift hours required in their roles. 

Next, the researchers conducted a randomised experiment with 232 undergraduate students from a US-based university to test the key themes derived from the qualitative research. 

Participants were randomly assigned to one of nine experimental conditions (or a control group) that varied in micro-break duration (1, 5 and 9 minutes) and type of activity undertaken. All participants, regardless of condition, completed two rounds of a 10-minute computer-based attention task. The two rounds were separated by a micro-break based on their assigned group. The control group had no micro-break. 

The types of activities included:

  • The relaxing activity condition: Participating in a guided medication via video
  • The work-related activity condition: Participating in a different work-related task that also requires a similar level of attention.  
  • The ‘detaching’ activity condition: Watching a comedic video from a well-known entertainment/talk show.

Energy and attention were measured three times via short questionnaires: (T1) before the task – that is, at baseline; (T2) after first attention task; (T3) after microbreak.  

In addition, subjective recovery experience (e.g., was the microbreak enjoyable and/or relaxing) was measured via survey immediately after the microbreak itself (i.e., at T2).

Finally, the study used mixed methods analysis of variance (ANOVA) to determine which condition was most effective at bringing participants back to baseline levels of attention and energy. The same statistical method was used to understand the effect of different micro-break activities on subjective recovery experience.

There were several key findings from this research:

Even a 1-minute micro-break can help fatigue levels
On average, the study found that on micro-break durations – whether 1, 5 or 9 minutes – all helped to replenish reported fatigue levels to some degree. However, some durations and activities were more effective than others (see below).

The most enjoyable and relaxing type of break is one that allows you to detach from the previous task
Participants reported that the most enjoyable and relaxing micro-break activity was the comedic video (‘the detachment’ condition). No matter how long the video (1, 5, or 9 minutes) - enjoyment and relaxation levels were higher than other activity types.

Task switching? A 1-minute work-related task can replenish fatigue 
Participants who did a work-related task for 1-minute reported a return to fatigue levels back to baseline. This effect was stronger than meditating for 1-minute! But don’t get caught up for too long... any longer and you’ll only increase your fatigue!

The findings of this recent research remind us that even the smallest of breaks can help to replenish your energy levels. Consider the following tips to take these research learnings into everyday practice:

1. Build microbreaks into your work routines. 
Draw from other productivity/time management hacks such as the Pomodoro technique to give yourself an opportunity to take short breaks throughout the day. For example, a 5-minute micro-break after every 25-minute block of work. 

2. Create a ‘playlist’ of short resources that will help you to momentarily detach from your task at hand. 
Now knowing what you know, take the decision-making time out of the picture by curating a list of short meditation/breathing exercises or entertainment videos that you view during a micro-break. Even better, you may also want to share this list with your colleagues and friends! However, remember to keep the break short. 

3. Use micro-breaks to take on micro e-learning experiences. 
Before a specific meeting or discussion, some background micro-learning can stimulate ideas and prepare for the task to come. For example, if a staff member is requiring a performance appraisal – some bulleted key points goal review is a good idea. Or when requesting a promotion for your supervisor or manager - review some overarching points to help you obtain your desired goals.

4. As a manager, normalise / encourage taking microbreaks. 
Set meeting times and agendas that account for a micro-break (e.g., 25 minutes instead of 30 minutes; 51 minutes instead of 60). Encourage teams to take short micro-breaks throughout their days. What’s 5 minutes if it will provide your team with an opportunity to replenish and recharge for the day ahead?

To read the original research study article, see here:

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