Working from home has so many perks. Whether you work for yourself or if you’re on the clock, managing the details of your daily schedule is a nice advantage. However, sometimes it’s hard to make sure you take your breaks when you work from home.

Why do breaks matter when we work from home?

We all know the importance of taking regular breaks during the, especially when we work from home. A quick online search will yield a pile of sites that will tell you exactly why, with research to back it all up.

That’s great, but really, we don’t need someone else’s research to tell us we need breaks. After a certain amount of time we become tired, less focused and productive, and more inclined to make errors. It becomes harder to make decisions. Overuse injuries, eyestrain and headaches may start to creep in.

The challenge of making your own schedule

I love those days when I have a wide-open schedule. I’ll plan a workday of 9-5, and if I’m lucky, some of those days are completely free of meetings or classes or any other commitments.

One of two things tends to happen on those days:

  1. Random mental wanderings while deciding what to do with all this open time
  2. Extended sessions of focused work with no breaks

But every once in a while I’ll hit the magic zone, one where there is a beautiful mix of focused work and breaks, of knocking down the endless to-do list and finally smashing those big, multi-dimensional projects.

A balanced workday

What does a productive, focused and – dare I say – balanced – workday look like?

Ok, we’re all adults here, we know the answer to this question.

In a balanced workday, you take breaks, you eat lunch away from your desk (gasp!), and you go outside for a bit at least once. You’ll know you’ve had one of those days when you finish the day feeling accomplished and refreshed, knowing you’ve tackled what needed tackling.

After one of these magical days you probably have enough energy left to cook a healthy dinner and spend the evening without your nose in your work email. Yes, it is possible.

Structure your day for success

Much like a blank page, a blank daily schedule can be a source of either elation or frustration, depending on what you do with it.

If you’re someone who loves that feeling of having a wide-open day, pay attention to how much you actually get done in that day. Unless you have a plan going in, you’re likely to get most of your best work done in the last hour of the day. Go ahead, prove me wrong.

There’s actually a name for this phenomenon. Parkinson’s Law states, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, if you have 8 hours to do a thing, it will take you 8 hours to do it.

Strategic use of breaks

One of the ways we can look at making sure we get our breaks in when we work from home is to strategize their timing. If we subscribe to Parkinson’s idea, if we restrict our available time for a task to two hours instead of “sometime during the day,” it stands to reason that we might actually get it done within those two hours.

Ok, good. You decide you’ll give yourself two hours to do a thing. But if there’s no one around to hold you accountable, how can you make sure you’ll take that break?

If you’re a hyper-focuser (like I am), once you get onto a roll you’ll just keep on working. When working from home it can be a real struggle to take the breaks we know we need.

Throw tomatoes at your breaks

“Pomodoro” (the Italian word for “tomato”) method is a popular approach with the productivity crowd. The basic premise is this: you work for a chunk of focused, distraction-free time, then take a timed 5-minute break, then work some more, then another break, etc.

There are different ideas about how much time your chunk of focused work should be. Some say 25 minutes then a 5-minute break, while others says 50 minutes with a 10-minute break. There are likely other approaches too.

The idea here is the work time is “distraction-free.” During your “pomodoro” you turn of all notifications, shut down your email (unless that’s what you’re working on), and you just do that one thing for that much time. When the time is up, you take your break.

Basically, you get ahead of your fatigue when you break up the work time into smaller chunks. There’s a little more to it than that, but this is the basic idea. Works like a charm.

If you’re a musician check out my post on why Pomodoro technique is so great for practicing: Tomatoes, Whiplash and Practicing Music

Plan the content of the breaks

We’re really good at getting specific with goals. You can decide you’ll get a specific task done within a certain amount of time. If you’re specific with the content of the goal you are more likely to get it done.

Now try planning the content of your breaks too. If your break plan is compelling enough it can become something you look forward to.

Actually, it really doesn’t even need to be compelling, it just helps to have the plan set in advance.

Try saying, “After two hours I will go for a walk around the block,” instead of, “After two hours I’ll take a break.” The break itself becomes the next task, so you know exactly what you have to do next.

Same thing for a lunch break. Meal planning might not be your favourite thing, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. Have you noticed when you work outside the home, if you take your lunch you’ll actually stop and eat it?

You can take lunch breaks when you work from home too. Just make a decision before you start your work block.

Decision fatigue

Here’s why you need to decide on the content of your break before you start working: decision fatigue.

Have you ever had the thing where you get to the end of a long day of endless decisions, and the thought of cooking dinner makes you want to just crawl under a rock?

That’s decision fatigue right there, and it’s fascinating. If you want to dive a little deeper here’s another post for you: Decision Fatigue: what is it, and what to do about it

This is why you need to do this early. If you use up all your decision credits in your block of focused work time, you’ll have nothing left to make good decisions on the other end.

The result is that spiral where you can’t make any more decisions, so you either just keep working, or stick your nose in social media and waste a bunch of time. Either way, avoiding the break just results in lower productivity, not to mention the increased chance of error.

Plan what comes after each break

It’s so easy not to take breaks when you work from home. It’s also very tempting to stay stuck in break bliss when you need to get back to work. I’ve been known to smash a few extra levels of Candy Crush during particularly nebulous days.

One of the handy things to know about decision fatigue is having a snack appears to help you regain your focus, and fill your decision tank once more. But if you consider you only have so much decision-making room available in a day, planning further ahead can help you stay on track.

Just decide ahead of time what you’ll be doing next. A great time to do this is when you stop your first chunk of work time, right before your break. If you got to where something needs to happen next, maybe that’s what you do right after your break.

The point is to decide before you get there. If you spend the first bit of your work time deciding what to do, you’ve wasted a bunch of that time.

Freedom in structure

Ok, my free-spirited friends, I know what you’re thinking. If you love to just see where the day takes you, you’ll be hard resisting these suggestions.

I’m not saying you plan every moment of your day, just try to have some blocks where you know what you’ll be doing. For example:

  • first work chunk: 2 hours, draft a blog post
  • break: 10 minutes, have an apple and peanut butter
  • second work chunk: 1 hour, blog post revisions, get ready to post
  • lunch: salad with grilled chicken

And so on.

When you restrict the time and the content of your work blocks, you can dive more deeply and make more progress within that time. When you decide in advance what comes next, you don’t have to carry around the weight of that decision when you take your break.

So, your break becomes something you look forward to, and becomes more restorative. Win-win.

Give it a try

Here’s how you might set this up:

  • determine the length of your work blocks (they can all be different)
  • decide how many blocks of work you’ll do in a day
  • determine how long each break should be
  • plan what you’ll do in each break

As for the content of the work blocks, here are two options:

  • decide on the content of your work blocks for the entire day, OR
  • take one work block at a time, and decide at the end of each work block what you’ll do in the next, post-break chunk of work time

Once you get good at this you can even set up the next day at the end of the current day, if you’re not too decision-fatigued. This can give you keep track of how things are progressing and keep you on track through multi-stage projects.