Why We Don’t Take Breaks (and What to Do About It)

Sometimes when we take a break, we may find that the solutions present themselves. – Catherine Pulsifer

A while back I facilitated an online training and my slide deck just stopped working. All eyes were on me as I couldn’t figure out how to get it back to slide show mode. I made it work until the next break when I stepped away from the computer. In about two minutes, I had the solution that I couldn’t figure out in the moment.

That’s just one of the wonderful benefits of taking breaks. When we step away, we can have a-ha moments we can’t see when we’re too close, actively trying to solve a problem.

Frequent breaks have been shown to improve focus and performance. When our emotional buttons are pushed (and they often are at work), a break can give us the ability to pause before responding. We can walk away from a problem and get some perspective on it. Perhaps even allow our brain to have an insight.

I teach busy professionals how to strengthen their skill of resilience. When I suggest taking breaks during the workday (or an “adult time out” as I called them in my 2016 TEDx talk) those I teach fight me, even when I emphasize that breaks can be done in two minutes or less.

The people I teach are often juggling a demanding job and an equally heavy personal life. No matter what company I work with, back-to-back meetings are the norm.

After work, they do the family thing, which may include cooking dinner, helping kids with schoolwork, taking care of parents, and cleaning up. Then they log back on to check a “few” emails. Sleep. Repeat.

That was life pre-pandemic. During the pandemic, work didn’t slow down. In fact, the companies I’ve been working with are growing and have accelerated the pace of work. Their employees are busier now despite dealing with a global pandemic that is still lurking around eighteen months later. Now work/life roles are blended even more.

When I mention how a simple thing like taking a break can help tremendously with their mental focus, emotional management, and overall wellbeing they balk – how could THEY possibly take a break?

They have meetings and when they don’t have meetings, they have emails, IM’s, and texts. If they take a break, something will fall through the cracks, they won’t be seen as responsive, or (fill in the blank here). They resist even though intellectually they know it’s good for them to take a break. But the perceived threats are way too much to override this knowledge.

Let’s talk about those threats.

Hustle culture. At a recent conference, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s CEO Jamie Dimon said remote work doesn’t work “for those who want to hustle.” Many companies believe that butts in seats = work productivity. If you’re not seen as actively working, you’re “goofing off”. Handling a high workload is considered a badge of honor and will get rewarded in most companies. Often, the best workers get more work piled on them and are afraid to raise their hand to admit that they’re overloaded.

We’re toast. At this point in the pandemic, our mental capacity is overloaded. We’re emotionally overwhelmed. Many are in some stage of burnout. When we are in a stressed mode it’s hard to think logically. It’s easier to follow the pattern of working without stopping than consciously doing something different by pausing and taking a break. Or we get into patterns of negative thinking and decide there’s no way out, so we quit our job.

Our brains are rewarded. Combine the social cues of more work = more rewards plus the state of an overloaded brain along with the dopamine hit when we get a new email and it’s no wonder busy professionals resist taking a break.

So, you see, we’re fighting against a very strong current.

One option is encouraging companies to embrace taking breaks and give employees mental space. Considering hustle culture, I doubt that will stick. Employers encouraging breaks requires way more than a LinkedIn post and I don’t have that kind of power.

So, I’ll address what each of us can control – ourselves.

Let’s talk about the part we play in this scenario.

When it comes to taking a break, we tell ourselves stories like….

  • If I take a break, they’ll think I’m a slacker.
  • They expect me to be “on” all the time.
  • What if I miss something?
  • If I don’t answer first, then I won’t get promoted.
  • If I answer first, she’ll know how much I sacrifice for the company.
  • I’ll get more done if I just keep working.

In addition to these stories we tell ourselves, it’s much easier to deal with work than home. When’s the last time your kid praised your performance as a parent? Distracting ourselves with work can help us avoid all that hard stuff we don’t want to deal with in our personal lives.

We may be scared of not being good enough. Maybe working hard was instilled in you as a kid and taking breaks was frowned upon. We have a lot of our identity tied up in work and producing outcomes.

Sometimes, we are always on because it feels good to be needed.

As a Type A, recovering overachiever who’s done some deep reflection on my own relationship with work, here’s what I’ve found to be true.

  • Not everything is urgent, even though it feels that way.
  • We are all replaceable (ouch – this one hurt to learn).
  • You’ll never get all the work done…there will always be more.
  • We may be the ones standing in our own way.

If you are one of those who power through each day, I encourage you to do an evaluation of the story that’s rolling around in your head and what’s really driving you.

Here are a few reflective questions to consider:

  • What do I need right now? (Not what the company needs but what you need.)
  • What would I say to a friend in the same situation?
  • What is holding me back?
  • What would happen if I took a break?
  • What would help me show up to my next interaction fully focused?
  • Do I need to be at that meeting?
  • What would happen if I left the meeting 5 minutes early?
  • Is there something I’m avoiding with all this busy-ness?

All I’m asking is that you pause, examine your thoughts, and if you’re ready, invest in yourself by taking a break. After all, there are 1,440 minutes in a day. The world won’t end if you take 10 of them for yourself.

I’d love to hear from you –

When’s the last time you took a break during the workday?

 What’s your favorite way to take a break?

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