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Why you suck at taking work breaks — and how to get better at it

I know that taking work breaks can have cognitive and mental health benefits. But as much as I want to squeeze in a stroll or yoga sequence during my workday, I just can’t pry myself from my laptop. I’m reluctant to interrupt my flow, or feel like I don't "deserve" relief unless I’ve reached a certain point in my draft. Only when my stomach is gurgling in fury — usually around 3:00 p.m. — do I finally eat lunch. Basically, I suck at taking breaks.

I’m not alone in this less-than-ideal work habit, which seems to have grown more common during the pandemic as working from home blurs boundaries between our personal and professional lives, says Alison Nobrega, a therapist in Oakland, California. “I think for some people, there's this increase in pressure to do more, because they have more time,” adds Athina Danilo, a Burbank, California-based therapist. They spoke with me about why some struggle with taking breaks, and how to overcome the compulsive need to stay glued to the screen.

On the one hand, difficulty with taking breaks might stem from your company’s work culture, Nobrega says. Even if your managers tell you self-care is important, their actions might model otherwise. Maybe they don’t take breaks themselves, for instance, or send emails after work hours. Not setting boundaries with yourself and others might also be to blame.

Nobrega also points out that we can’t forget that we live in a capitalist society, which judges our worth based on our productivity. Danilo agrees. “The amount of hours you’re putting into work each day can be easily measured and noticed,” she says. “It can make you feel like, oh you’re doing a lot, you must be worthy enough.” That can further reinforce the connection between self-worth and work, pushing you to work even more.

Nobrega and Danilo listed a few factors that might make it harder for someone to step away from work. A tendency to people please is one of them. “I think a lot of the times with people pleasers, it starts with parent pleasing as a child and adolescent,” Nobrega says. She often sees it develop in those whose parents set high expectations for them. Maybe something about your boss reminds you of your parents’ expectations of you.

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As a parent pleaser turned people pleaser myself, I would constantly chase the praise my parents would give me for my ability to study for long stretches; it’s not hard to see myself seeking that same approval from my supervisors.

Culture matters, too, Danilo adds. In some immigrant families, “there’s more of this underlying pressure to do more and prove themselves, especially as minorities, in order to feel like they belong.” And in collectivistic cultures, there can be an emphasis on high education, careers, and financial stability, which can spur guilt around taking breaks or vacations. Indeed, seeing my Asian immigrant parents constantly grinding, I thought I needed to do the same, when in reality, they were probably toiling away so I wouldn’t have to.

Long-term, working with little to no breaks can lead to burnout, Nobrega and Danilo tell me. “The self-worth becomes even more attached to what you’re doing versus who you are as a person, so I think that can bring up a lot of anxiety around work performance,” Danilo adds, which can, in turn, result in procrastination. Symptoms of anxiety and depression can also surface, as well as resentment toward your workplace and managers, Nobrega says.

On the flip side, scheduling regular breaks allows you a chance to refuel — or “refill your emotional tank,” as Danilo puts it — which can make you more productive. More broadly, it can help you see that you’re worth more than the work you do, she adds. And “you get to know yourself better if you focus on taking care of yourself and identifying what brings you joy,” Nobrega says. You build a life that’s sustainable for you, one that’s not all about work.

A clear head? A sustainable lifestyle? Learning to value myself for more than my output? Sign me up. Here’s how to get better at taking work breaks so you can enjoy their benefits.

Shift your mindset

Work on unlearning the belief that you need to “deserve” a break. “Breaks don’t need to be earned,” Nobrega says. “We can take breaks when we need them.” Think beyond the parts of your brain that allow you to achieve focus and flow. Stepping away can benefit the parts of your brain involved in creativity and daydreaming, and allow you to return with fresh ideas. It can also help to see it as an opportunity to refuel, avoid burnout, and improve your productivity — basically, it's an important part of the work, Danilo says.

Literally schedule your breaks

For me, taking breaking breaks often requires more effort than just sitting and continuing to tap away at my laptop. To make it less daunting, Danilo has found it helpful at the beginning of the week to schedule breaks in her planner, between appointments.

Nobrega suggests setting a timer and a calendar reminder while being realistic about what works with your schedule. Maybe do things you’d normally save until the end of the day, spread out in five- or 10-minute blocks, “so it doesn’t feel like you’re adding more to your day, you're just doing it at a different time.”

Listen to your body

“Our body will tell us things we’re often not aware of,” Nobrega says. If you’re feeling antsy, or have a headache, it’s time to take a break. Remembering how your body felt during a time you were burnt out from work can also help you recognize when to step away, before you reach that point.

Gather evidence

Take a mental note of how you feel after you take a break as evidence you can refer to, say, during a busy week when you don’t think you have time for one, Nobrega says. Reminding yourself of how much they’ve personally helped you can motivate you to take one.

Be mindful about the types of breaks you take

“Think about a break that revolves around something you enjoy, something you look forward to,” Nobrega says. Take a few minutes to stretch or do yoga, or don’t move at all. Sit outside, or catch up with a friend. Write a list of things that energize and have it handy, as a reminder. The operative word here is “energize.” Avoid activities that are actually energy draining, like mindlessly scrolling through social media, Danilo says.

Be gentle with yourself

At first, it might feel like it takes more effort to take a break than to keep working. But think of breaks as habits, which take time to form, Danilo says. After a while, it won’t feel as overwhelming to carve them out.

“We have to be realistic about what’s expected of us, as well as taking care of ourselves,” Nobrega says. If you still need to work 10 hour days, ask how you can make them look and feel better. Start small. A break can literally be as simple as walking away from your desk or putting your laptop away. Whenever you take one, give yourself props.

All of this might seem like a lot of work for now, but it'll be worth it in the long run. If a coup attempt a mere week into 2021 is any indicator of what's to come, we'll need all the breaks we can get.