Microbreaks and the rhythm of work and play

We can all agree stagnation, or non-productivity, is the enemy of business. But whats the opposite of stagnation? The antidote to not getting enough done?

David Beharall: Managing Director CandidSky

There’s a reason Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s Harvard Business Review article “Making of a Corporate Athlete,” which inspired the idea of microbreaks, resonated with me as a business leader. 

For a lot of businesses, it’s to push workers harder and harder. Longer hours, fewer rests, tighter control of employees’ activities. 

But coming from a background in sport, I have a completely different perspective. 

In my time as a professional footballer, we celebrated rest just as much as we celebrated hard graft. On the afternoon before a game, the club coaches would tell me to take it easy. Get plenty of sleep. Eat the right things. Those methods are backed by sports scientists, who have proved peak performance follows good rest. 

So the opposite of stagnation for me isn’t slogging away the hours. It’s oscillation. A rhythm of using energy (work) and recovering energy (rest). Finding the balance between stressing the mind and body, then relaxing. 

That’s why the HBR article resonated with me — and why we’ve been using microbreaks at my company, CandidSky, from the beginning. 

What’s a Microbreak? 

Studying the world’s best tennis players, Loehr and Schwartz noticed they did something different to ordinary pros. 

World class players used 15-20 second recovery rituals — microbreaks — in between points, without even realising it. Their microbreaks were often strange rituals, like concentrating on their racket strings or taking a strong stance. 

That’s all a microbreak needs to be. It’s a moment’s rest from what you’re doing, which lets you ‘reset’ your mind and come back fresh. And these tiny rests are enough to help top tennis players recover the extra energy they need to win. 

In the office, you probably don’t have any racket strings to fiddle with. But you can take a walk, do some exercise, or play a short game. 

You don’t have to squeeze your microbreaks in between tennis points, either. So your ideal microbreak frequency and length will depend on the job you do and the size of your team. 

Your Microbreak rhythm is different from mine 

That’s why we’ve been experimenting with microbreaks at CandidSky since I started the business. 

I don’t claim to be an expert. We’re still experimenting. But microbreaks work so well that in our new Manchester offices, 50 percent of the space is dedicated to breakout areas. You’re as likely to spot a stack of Lego as a stack of ledgers. 

We’ve experimented with duration and frequency, and found different jobs need different timings. For our web developers, four hours of solid work is much too long without a rest — but more than one break per hour disrupts the working rhythms staff get into. 

We’ve experimented with a variety of different activities staff can do in their microbreaks. A three-minute break is great for drawing, or playing a quick mobile game. Five minutes is enough for a quick walk. Most importantly, we’ve found the best microbreak activities are meaningful and fun: a real rest from the job you’re doing. 

Timing them is important too. When a microbreak is timed, staff are more mindful of how they use it — and they appreciate it more. Five minutes can suddenly feel like a long time. 
The outcome has been that, just like in football, our company celebrates rest. And we have a happy workforce, who are achieving incredible things. 

Four bits of advice for new Microbreakers 

If you’re thinking of experimenting with microbreaks at your own workplace, I’ve got four bits of advice for you. 

  1. Your whole company has to support it. Microbreaks aren’t something you can implement half-heartedly. If managers and staff aren’t on board, they’ll quickly abandon them during stressful times. And if they don’t appreciate the value of rest, they won’t feel its benefits. 
  2. It’s essential to develop a good flow of work and rest. At CandidSky, we’ve experimented with different working periods, split by microbreaks of two, three and five minutes. We then gather feedback from individual staff on how their energy levels and working rhythms are affected. When staff are in a good flow, they get more done.
  3. The types of activity you use are important too. They need to be ‘low cognitive demand’ tasks, so staff get a genuine rest from work — but they still need to be meaningful and fun. We’ve found doodling, Lego, listening to music and going for a walk all work brilliantly. 
  4. And finally, you need to make sure microbreak resources are readily available so staff can use them. At CandidSky our new stand-up desk is really popular, and staff can always access drawing and writing pads and fresh air. One of my own favourites is an app called Calm — because even as the head of a busy marketing agency, the sportsman in me knows rest leads to peak performance.