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The other day, reviewing research on how long our work breaks should be, I noticed a curious connection. Three separate studies indicated essentially the same thing: we should be on break for 20-25% of our day for optimal energy and productivity.
Two studies conducted in 2014 and 2021 by Desktime (a time tracking app) found that their most productive users were on break for this proportion of the day. The 2014 study found that their most productive users were on break for 17 minutes every 52 minutes they worked—in other words, 25% of the day, in other words. Mid-pandemic, in 2021, their most productive users were on break for an average of 26 minutes for every 112 minutes of work—19% of the day.
A third study found that our energy naturally moves in a similar rhythm throughout the day. Most of the day, we oscillate between periods of wakefulness and sleepiness. We typically experience around 20 to 30 minutes of tiredness for every 90-minute period of higher energy. That’s roughly 18-25% of the day that our body naturally wants to rest.
Taken together, these studies seem to suggest that 20-25% of the day is the sweet spot for breaks—especially if you’re trying to optimize your productivity level or accommodate the natural rhythms of your body and mind.
While this sounds like a lot of time, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. If you’ve tried the Pomodoro technique, you’ve already worked with this rhythm. With the technique, you focus on something for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break. After the first break, you repeat the same rhythm three more times, taking an extended break after the fourth focus session—the official website recommends around 20 minutes for this longer break. This equals 25% of the day—more if you decide to take an even longer break at the end, as many do.
Another way to look at these numbers: Being on break for 20% of an eight-hour day is equivalent to a one-hour lunch break, plus one 18-minute break in the morning and afternoon. 25% of the day is a one-hour lunch break, with another hour of breaks distributed throughout the day. That’s a good amount of time, but as I’ve written in the past, when we’re on break, our mind continues working—especially when we give it a chance to wander.
Working with this knowledge, I’ve started to track how many minutes I focus for—and then just multiply that number by 25% to figure out how long to break for when I feel the need to—or when I can. The longer I work, the longer the break I get.
Your mileage will vary, of course. But remember that 20-25% of the day seems to be the sweet spot for both energy and productivity.