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When working on a project, how often should you take breaks and for how long for maximum productivity? Are there any studies or research on optimal use of breaks (universally), or is it more of a personal, subjective thing?

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@Soner: Will do soon. Because we're early in the beta I wanted to give a good amount of people a chance to answer questions before I go back and accept. – jrdioko Jul 18 '11 at 4:29

10 Answers 10

up vote 26 down vote accepted

I don't know of any specific studies I can point to your question directly right now but:

  1. In a class of pedagogy I was told that classes should be no longer than 50m because after that focus and concentration are severely impaired, and anything beyond 1h30m does not get assimilated at all. This seems to validate that: The Effect of Class Duration on Academic Performance and Attendance in an Introductory Computer Class

  2. Always found the "pomodoro" 25m/5m technique very effective in keeping the momentum going.
    The Pomodoro Technique

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Interesting. I'd be curious to see any other references on the class length concept if anyone has them. – jrdioko Jul 1 '11 at 21:29
In case of 50/10, that's just the double of 25/5. In university we have 120/15 which is 1.5x instead of 2.0x because we don't need much more pause than that. Well, sometimes we have a pause of 5 minutes after 60 to cope with the concentration problem as mentioned by @njsf... – Tom Wijsman Jul 1 '11 at 23:06
+1 We also previously used the 50/10 as part of extreme programming / pair programming. – Shiraz Bhaiji Jul 2 '11 at 10:12
How do you justify these breaks to a micromanager? Just say, "it's Pomodoro", and walk away from my desk every 20 min? – T. Webster Dec 25 '12 at 7:56

For myself;

In the face of computer, I generally give a break 15 minutes for every hour. If I read a book, personally prefer taking 30 minutes break every 90 minutes. But the point is; if you get bored or tired, take a break. But do it regularly

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Short answer: Take preciously 5 min breaks every 25 min of work. Every 2 hours of work, take a longer break (around half an hour).

Further reading of Pomodoro technique might help you with more details.

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While a lot depends on the person, I think, also from experiences in teaching, that anything beyond 50/60m without a break is, on average, and for the vast majority of people, detrimental to concentration. To enforce these breaks, I've personally recently had some good experiences with Instant Boss. The only downside to this is that these strict break timings often interfere with creative bursts or states of flow, where it would actually be better to continue working as long as the state lasts. While Instant Boss has an easy dismiss function, I don't usually start it when I'm writing, since it hinders me more than it helps.

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I also cannot point to any subjective answers but from my experience, I find that it is largely dependent on the nature of the project.

  • Project with lots of meetings, concentration or abstract thoughts - about 1 hour with a 5mins break, and than a 30mins break after 4hours.
  • Project with large physical component, about 30mins with a 5min break, and then a 45 min break after 4 hours.

It largely reflect a typical working day for me, starting with morning session, following by the lunch break and then finish the day with the afternoon session.

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I use a tool that helps me set regular breaks when working. It also helps me to stay focus on tasks and get more things done in a short period of time. Using this tool it allows me to take a break in every 2 hours of work I take 15 minutes break, which helps me relax a bit and try to regain sanity.

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I know this sounds crazy but there are people that swear by 30/30.

30 minutes work (intense thinking), then 30 minutes of break. The break can optionally include some light work requiring little brainpower like filing or straitening up your desk or making an uncomplicated phone call.

If you are in the middle of an epiphany at the 30 minute mark, don't stop, but don't exceed 50 minutes of intense thinking.

I typically use 50/10, but I have found 30/30 handy for tasks that I find horrifically demoralizing or mind-numbingly boring (like transcribing data into a table, or performing some task a machine should be doing). The second 30 minutes does not have to be work free however it should be something you enjoy doing.

I have always found switching to a fun task improves overall performance and morale.

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I've been trying to adapt a "90 minutes with 30 minute break afterwards" cycle. (I thought I read somewhere that 90 minutes was as long as you could realistically get productive work done - I think this idea came from the Outliers book).

I've just started it these last few days, so there is that. I think the canonical Pomodoro technique would be too short to get actual knowledge work done, but maybe those who have actually tried it in a knowledge work context can chime in here.

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Pomodoro has really worked for me. Once you get started, it is difficult to do only one Pomodoro!

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I've been applying the Pomodoro Technique with a little Change. I do two Pomodoros (50 minutes) of study and then "2 breaks" (10 minutes). After two or three sessions like this I take a 30 minutes long break. Its important that you really take a break when is time for it. No reading, no writing. Take a walk outside your apartment or clean your room. Another recommendation is to have next to you a little notepad when you study, and everything unrelated that comes to you mind you write it down so it stops bothering you.

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Welcome to Personal Productivity. Good tips, but how do you know this is an optimal schedule to follow? – THelper Mar 31 '14 at 9:05

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